Is How Children Sleep Actually Genetic?

How long kids sleep may be genetic, study finds
child sleeping

Your toddler’s sleep habits may be affected by both genetics and environment.

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Genes play an important role in how long your child sleeps at night, and environmental factors influence daytime naps, says a new study. But this doesn’t mean your child’s sleep habits are out of your control, researchers add.

Jyoti Krishna, MD, did not take part in the study but treats pediatric sleep disorders at Cleveland Clinic. He says some children just don’t need as much sleep as others.

“If the child isn’t sleeping during the day with naps, if he’s happy and growing normally, then you have to think he may be genetically programmed to sleep a little bit less than his peers,” says Dr. Krishna.

What the study found

Laval University (Quebec) researchers followed nearly 1,000 twins whose mothers reported on their sleep habits from age 6 months to 4 years. About 400 were identical twins, which mean they share genes. The rest were fraternal who were no more genetically similar than other non-twin siblings.

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The study found that genes seemed to explain differences among children in how long they sleep at night. However, napping was most linked to the environmental setting, especially for toddlers and preschoolers.

Dr. Krishna agrees that the environment can be key while putting your child down for sleep beyond the 6-month age.

“Where you put your child to bed is important, for example. Is the baby being put to sleep on the couch while Mom and Dad are watching TV? These things can go a long way in making for a poor bedtime routine as the child grows.”

What parents can do to improve sleep habits

Researchers say more studies will be needed to pinpoint the genes contributing to short or persistent nighttime sleep, or what environmental factors are most critical for daytime sleep.

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In the meantime, Dr. Krishna says these guidelines can help parents navigate the tricky business of putting their toddlers down for bedtime:

  • Maintain a regular and consistent sleep schedule Your child’s bedtime and wake-up time should be about the same every day, whether it’s a school day or not. The consistency of wake-up time sets the stage for the rest of the day and allows your child to get adequately tired by bedtime.
  • Don’t let your child go to bed hungry – Give your child a light snack before bedtime — a glass of milk, piece of fruit or bowl of cereal. A heavy meal within one or two hours of bedtime can interfere with sleep, however.
  • Plan for up to an hour of quiet time before bed – Every night before bed, set aside calm activities your child enjoys like reading or listening to quiet music. Brushing teeth and going to the bathroom can be part of this quiet time, too, in preparation for bed. No TV, homework or video games. The quiet time doesn’t need to take place in the bedroom, but should end there for the last 10-15 minutes before it’s time to go to sleep.
  • Keep the bedroom environment sleep-friendly – Keep the bedroom quiet, comfortable (70 to 75 degrees F) and dark (a nightlight is OK). Don’t have a TV in the bedroom so your child will not develop the habit of needing a TV on to fall asleep.
  • Develop a warm, secure and consistent bedtime routine – It’s fine to encourage the use of a security object like a blanket or stuffed animal so the child feels safer in bed. Always give a hug and a kiss, say goodnight and turn off the light before leaving the bedroom; the predictability of these acts are warm and reassuring.

Remember to keep the bedroom as a place associated with positive feelings. Don’t use it for time outs or as a room for punishment; keep it as a comforting place for quiet time and sleeping.

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