Study Links Early Sleep Problems to Autism Diagnosis Among At-Risk Children

Jill Murphy, Assistant Editor
Published Online: Friday, May 8th, 2020
Sleep problems among children who have a sibling with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may further raise the likelihood of an ASD diagnosis compared to at-risk children who do not have difficulty sleeping, according to a study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Previous research has shown that young children who have a sibling with ASD are at a higher risk for also being diagnosed with the condition, according to a NIH press release. These findings may give clinicians a tool to identify sleep problems early and provide interventions to reduce their effects on the health and development of children with autism. In addition, the findings may provide insight into the potential role of sleep problems in the development of ASD.
Researchers analyzed data from a long-term study of children who do and do not have siblings with ASD. When the children reached the ages of 6 months and 12 months, their parents were asked to respond to an infant temperament questionnaire that asks how much difficulty their child has falling asleep at bedtime and falling back to sleep after waking up during the night. At these time intervals, the children also received MRI scans to track their brain development.
The children were assessed for ASD at 24 months.
Four hundred and thirty-two children participated in the study, and 305 of these participants had a sibling previously diagnosed with ASD. Out of this group of 305, 71 were diagnosed with ASD at age 24 months, while 234 children in this group did not meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD.
One hundred and twenty-seven study participants did not have a sibling with ASD, and none of the children met the diagnostic criteria for ASD.
According to the study authors, high-risk children who met criteria for ASD scored higher for sleep problems at ages 6 months and 12 months compared to the other groups. In addition, these children had more growth in the brain’s hippocampus region from ages 6 months to 24 months compared to the high-risk children without sleep problems. This finding is crucial to the researchers because the hippocampus is involved in storing and retrieving memories, and previous studies in adults have linked insomnia with a smaller hippocampus volume.
The study authors could not determine why sleep problems were linked with larger hippocampus volume in the children who went on to meet ASD criteria. Further, the authors noted that their study could not provide information about the overall quality of the children’s sleep, such as the degree of sleep fragmentation, and sleep duration.
Additional studies with more comprehensive measures of sleep was suggested to further confirm the researchers’ findings, according to the press release.


NIH-funded study links early sleep problems to autism diagnosis among at-risk children. NIH. Published May 7, 2020. Accessed May 7, 2020.

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