An innovative program aimed at improving the sleep of children aged 3-5 years is helping parents tackle what can be an enduring problem.

Led by Griffith University researchers and funded by Rotary Health, the Lights Out Program is a parent-focussed, group-based cognitive behaviour therapy program for sleep problems in young children delivered in the year prior to beginning Prep.

One hundred and nineteen parents participated in the program delivered over six weeks at the Gold Coast and Mt Gravatt campuses. The program included 5 x 1.5-hour weekly workshops and a personalised, one-on-one phone call check-in. Parents were randomised to either receiving the Lights Out program or care-as-usual.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Caroline Donovan from the School of Applied Psychology said 14% of young Australian children (aged 3-5) have a moderate to severe sleep problem.

“Sleep problems in the preschool years predict the later onset of anxiety in primary school, throughout adolescence and into adulthood. They also predict conduct problems at age 7, and attention problems into mid-adolescence,” she said.

“Sleep problems in pre-schoolers are associated with deficits in working memory, executive function, language skills, learning scores and school adjustment.

“If we treat the sleep problems early, we hope to reduce or even prevent, the emergence of anxiety, behavioural, and academic problems when these kids first go to school.”

Preliminary results of the first phase of the two-year program show that treatment has worked for 80% of children.

“There are three main types of sleep behaviour problems and our program provides strategies for all three,’’ Associate Professor Donovan said.

  1. Behavioural – Anxiety (scared of the dark) issues
  2. Biological – Circadian rhythm issues (going to bed too late, ie at 10pm and not getting enough sleep)
  3. Behavioural

At the beginning of the program, all children in the ‘care as usual’ group and the treatment group were rated by their parents as having a moderate to severe sleep problem.

By the end of the first-term of Prep, 80% of the care as usual group were rated by their parents as having a moderate to severe sleep problem, yet only 20% of the treatment group were rated as such.

Associate Professor Donovan said the researchers also found significant differences in child anxiety between the care as usual and the treatment group — so the sleep program helped their anxiety as well.”

The researchers are recruiting for the second phase of the study. Find out more.