NEW YORK (Reuters) - Screening children for sleeping problems and discussing sleep strategies with parents could help youngsters settle into school with better nighttime routines, according to a study from Australia.
Study author Jon Quach, from the University of Melbourne, and his team found that when they had sleep-related consultations with parents, children tended to have fewer sleep problems and better bedtime habits than children whose parents didn't get counseled.
The study, published in Pediatrics, was small and didn't show that the sleep improvements led to changes in academic achievements later in the year.
"Sleep problems are common in young school children and are treatable using ... a brief behavior-based intervention," Quach told Reuters Health in an email.
"Parents should seek advice for their child's sleep if they are concerned."
In five- and six-year-olds, most sleep problems are related to the children's behavior, researchers said.
"Some of them still have poor sleep habits where they are going to bed too late, they don't have a bedtime routine, and many of them are still having parents stay with them when they go to sleep at night," said Jodi Mindell, a pediatric sleep specialist at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, who was not involved with the study.
"You also get in this age group some night-time fears," she added, with anxiety possibly increasing as those children start school.
The study focused on the back-to-school time frame and included children who were heading into their first year of elementary school.
Quach said that's an important window for addressing sleep problems, because children who don't sleep well might have more trouble making the transition to school, which sets them up for worse academic performance and poorer relationships later on.
Quach and his colleagues surveyed about 1,500 parents of children starting at 22 different elementary schools in Melbourne. Of these parents, 161 said their child had a moderate or severe sleeping problem and 108 were recruited for the study. Children with more serious sleep-related breathing problems, for example, were excluded.
Half of the participating parents had a private consultation at school, followed by a telephone call two weeks later, to discuss behavioral sleep strategies based on their child's specific issues. The other half weren't offered any extra help.
Over the next year, the researchers surveyed parents again about their children's sleep. Six months after the initial consultation, they also gave all children a learning assessment.
Sleep issues tended to resolve in both groups, but children whose parents had sleep-related counseling generally did better.
After six months, 26 percent of children in the consultation group and 47 percent in the no-consultation group still had moderate or severe sleep problems. By one year, however, there was no difference and about one-third of children in both groups had sleep problems.
Children in the consultation group had less resistance at bedtime and took less time to go to bed, according to their parents' reports. But there was no difference in how well they did on academic tests designed to measure reading, math and spelling skills.
Quach and colleagues noted that the study was small and that a follow-up including more children will be needed, including one that tracks students' academic progress for more than a year.
Mindell said the study pointed to a need for teachers and school psychologists to look for sleep problems, adding that some really simple changes could help.
"Making sure your child goes to bed before nine -- we know that that's the tipping point, including reading as part of the bedtime routine -- it helps calm children down, it gives them a focus, it helps with literacy, it's all good. Then encouraging children to fall asleep on their own," she said.
Also, make sure there are no distracting electronics in the room, she added.
"Get rid of the Game Boys, get rid of the computers, get rid of the cell phones," she said.
(Reporting by Genevra Pittman at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)