When children face an unsettling experience, such as the injury of a parent, it can alter their sleep habits, according to new research.

According to researchers, the serious injury of a parent can alter a child’s daily routine, and the child may observe their parent’s pain and recovery.

For the study, researchers examined whether children with injured parents had increased doctor visits for sleep disorders, such as circadian rhythm disorder, excessive sleeping, insomnia, narcolepsy, sleep walking, restless leg syndrome, and sleep disordered breathing.

They found that children of parents with both post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury had a 48 percent increase in sleep visits to a doctor.

“It’s important that medical providers ask about stressors in the home, such as an injury to a parent, and ask about how their child has been sleeping,” said Saira Ahmed, M.D., a pediatrics resident at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“These conversations are important to help the family catch and treat sleep issues early to avoid physical and emotional problems down the line.”

The researchers used records from the Military Health System to locate children up to age 18 with a parent seriously injured in combat or daily life. This led to the examination of the records of 485,002 children of 272,211 injured parents, according to the researchers.

Common injuries were brain or combat injuries. The child’s median age at time of the parent’s injury was 7 years, the researchers reported.

Using outpatient pharmacy records, they compared visits for sleep disorders and sleep medication prescriptions before and after a parent’s injury.

Overall, the use of sleep medications decreased. However, following an injury, children were 17 percent more likely to seek outpatient care for sleep disorders.

This may be due to children being seen by a sleep specialist, as injured military personnel are often transferred to larger facilities for treatment, increasing their children’s access to specialty care, the researchers posit.

The researchers add that when a physician sees a new patient, especially young children, they may wean the child off sleep medications and begin behavior modification and non-pharmacological efforts to reduce sleep disorders.

The study found that teens especially had more difficulty adjusting to the injury of a parent. The study’s findings indicate that teens had a 37 percent increase in sleep visits after a parent’s injury.

Puberty and its altered sleep schedules, as well as the challenges of high school, can predispose teens to sleep issues, Ahmed noted.

“It is imperative that medical providers discuss their children’s sleep with parents and consider sleep in the care plan of children of injured parents,” Ahmed concluded.

The study was presented at the 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

Graph: Adjusted Incidence Rate Ratio of Outpatient Visits for Sleep Disorders Following Parental Injury. Credit: Saira Ahmed.