A new study from the United Kingdom indicates that sleep problems in infancy may help to predict later social skills deficits, autism traits, and autism diagnoses in children.

Jannath Begum-Ali and colleagues studied 164 children with or without first-degree relatives with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and/or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The researchers evaluated the children at 5, 10, and 14 months of age, analyzing day and night sleep issues, including day/night sleep duration, number of naps in the day, frequency of night awakenings, and sleep onset problems.

The researchers report, “By 14 months, infants with a first-degree relative with ASD (but not ADHD) showed lower [worse] night sleep scores than infants with no family history of ASD; lower night sleep scores in infancy were also associated with a later ASD diagnosis, decreased cognitive ability, increased ASD symptomatology at 3 years, and developing social attention (e.g., looking to faces).” They detected no associations with day sleep.

They conclude, “Sleep may be a viable target for early intervention in infants with a family history of ASD, particularly around the age of 14 months.”

“Infant sleep predicts trajectories of social attention and later autism traits,” Jannath Begum-Ali, Louisa K. Gossé, Luke Mason, Greg Pasco, Tony Charman, Mark H. Johnson, Emily J.H. Jones, and The STAARS Team, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, March 2023 (free online). Address: Jannath Begum-Ali, Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London, Henry Wellcome Building, Birkbeck University of London, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HX, UK, [email protected]

This article originally appeared in Autism Research Review International, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2023

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