A recent study has found that parents play an important part in screening for sleep problems in children with Down syndrome.
These children often suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea, a condition which affects their breathing during sleep. Health professionals rely on parents’ reports about their child’s sleep, including restlessness, snoring and other forms of noisy breathing, when screening for the condition.
In the past, there has been some uncertainty among health professionals about the accuracy of these reports. However, this study, by a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, shows parents’ reports are backed up by objective measures of activity during sleep and sound recordings.
This finding could help health professionals diagnose the condition, which can lead to an improvement in a child’s ability to learn. In some cases, specific behavioural problems are attributed to a child’s learning disability, when the cause is obstructive sleep apnoea, a treatable condition.
Lead researcher Dr Rebecca Stores, of the School of Health Sciences and Social Work, said: “The findings from this exploratory study support the idea that parents are a useful and reliable source of information where these aspects of their child’s sleep are concerned, and initial enquiries by health professionals should certainly make use of what parents report.”
The study, carried out on 31 children, also showed daytime behavioural problems were more likely in the children with restless sleep, those who snored and also those with lower blood oxygen levels.
Obstructive sleep apnoea is a condition in which the upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly during sleep. Each time this occurs, breathing stops for a time and the child becomes restless or is woken up, struggling to breathe and snoring or breathing noisily. Daytime consequences can include learning and behaviour problems.
Parents and health professionals may mistakenly assume that the disturbed behaviour is related to the child’s limited intellectual level, which cannot be altered. However, obstructive sleep apnoea is treatable and precise diagnosis and treatment might improve the child’s behaviour and ability to learn.
“The link between disturbed sleep and daytime behavioural problems is particularly important to recognise in children with a learning disability,” said Dr Stores.
“It could be that disturbed daytime behavior is being misinterpreted as part of the child’s general condition or thought of as the child ‘just being difficult’.
“Early recognition and accurate diagnosis are important because of the potential improvements in behaviour and learning that can be expected following appropriate treatment.”
The condition can also have physical effects such as heart complications and growth problems, another reason why early detection and treatment is important.
Researchers carried out overnight video and audio recordings of the children, measured blood oxygen levels and used an activity monitor to measure body movements during sleep. Parents’ reports included a questionnaire about the child’s sleeping habits, a diary completed on the night of the recording, and daytime behaviour rating scales completed the following morning.
The study was funded by the Portsmouth Down Syndrome Trust, now known as Down Syndrome Education International.
Journal of Intellectual Disability Research.