A visiting world-renowned expert on childhood behavioural disorders is set to share insights into how kids' sleep problems can hurt their academic performance and later success in life.

Professor Greg Hanley, of Western New England University in the US, will give a public talk at Auckland University next week.

The psychology researcher, practitioner and consultant points to a growing body of evidence suggesting that sleep problems can negatively affect children and their families, with links to irritability, daytime sleepiness, lower IQ, risk of obesity and anxiety in adulthood.

Sleep problems were more severe and prevalent among children with developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, coming also with self-injury, defiant behaviour, aggression, tantrums and impulsivity.


For families, these problems also affected sleep, as well as stress, tension and strain on marriages.

"New Zealand as well as other countries like the United States are not doing enough to prevent and treat these problems," Hanley said.

Over recent years, a number of evidence-based and side effect-free behavioural interventions have been investigated.

One recent study led by Hanley showed that children both with and without developmental disability for whom common pharmacological treatments had been unsuccessful were able to reduce sleep onset delay and eliminate sleep-interfering behaviours by using simple behavioural methods.

Treatments often consisted of common-sense strategies such as monitoring bed times, limiting access to preferred leisure activities just before bedtime, or managing parental attention for bedtime-related challenging behaviours.

Research showed that parents could implement these strategies under the supervision of a qualified behaviour analyst or psychologist to rapid favourable effects, he said.

Dr Javier Virues-Ortega, a lecturer in the assessment and treatment of developmental and intellectual disabilities at Auckland University, said there were unique features to the distribution of sleep disorders in New Zealand.

A survey published this year, which included thousands of respondents from across the country, indicated that Maori had a higher prevalence of sleep disturbances than Kiwis of European descent.

However, Virues-Ortega said, these findings had not been replicated in children.

"The common view that children grow out of sleep disorders is not supported by research," he said.

"For example, a longitudinal study conducted with New Zealand 3-year-olds that snored heavily showed that the problem was still present for about half of them when assessed as age 7."

Another recent study on New Zealand children's sleep habits showed that disturbed sleep was associated with having technology like smartphones or computers in the room, watching TV just before bedtime and caffeine consumption.

These findings had been replicated in other countries and suggest straightforward strategies to develop healthy eating habits.

"In spite of this survey, our knowledge of the quality of sleeping habits among New Zealand children is very limited," he said.

"The evidence available from adults and adolescents is not encouraging, with prevalence of sleep disturbances, including difficulty falling asleep and nocturnal awakenings, ranging from 10 to 15 per cent of the population."

He said the prevalence and severity of sleep disorders in children worsened when those with developmental disabilities were focused on.

"Among these kids sleep disorders can co-exist with severe challenging behaviours including self-injury and impulsivity."

"Dr Hanley is an expert in working with these severe cases. However, some of the strategies he uses are equally valid for typically developed children and adults."

Hanley's free talk will be held in Auckland University's Maths and Physics Building from 6pm-7.30pm on Tuesday. See here for more information.

Obesity study looks at kids' movements

Meanwhile, researchers from Massey University's College of Health are appealing for help with two studies focused on how an overweight child moves differently from a child of healthy weight.

Lead researcher Dr Sarah Shultz said the studies could ultimately help health professionals better prescribe appropriate exercise activities.

One of the projects, the AquaSport study, aimed to better understand how children moved differently in and out of water.

"Because water allows you to float, the amount of stress applied to muscle and bone is reduced," she said.

"By examining how overweight children move over land and in water, we can better understand how underwater activity could be added to exercise programmes as a safe and effective alternative to the more weight-bearing activities on land."

In the second project, the Gait Transition study, researchers sought to find out what factors contributed to a child's ability to change speeds from walking to running.

"Playground activities and sports often require a child to move between walking and running," Shultz said.

"If we can identify factors that make these transitions difficult, then we may better understand why overweight children are not physically active."

For each of the studies, Shultz was seeking children from the wider Wellington region.

Participation in the AquaSport study took less than two hours and children received a $20 activity voucher for their time.

The Gait Transition study involved three sessions, lasting two to three hours each, in which children walk and run at different speeds on a treadmill while motion and muscle activation are recorded, and receive a $30 activity voucher.

Parents keen to take part could contact Shultz at s.p.shultz@massey.ac.nz.