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Understanding Impact of

Toddler Sleep Habits

Parents often say their toddlers seem irritable, even irrational, after a night of fitful sleep.

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The anecdote may hold truth. UNL Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior researchers are studying the long-term developmental effects of toddler sleep habits, including sleeping too little, waking frequently or varying bedtimes.

Victoria Molfese, Chancellor’s Professor of Child, Youth and Family Studies, predicts that 2- and 3-year-olds who don’t get enough ZZZs may struggle with cognitive and social skills, like following simple instructions, focusing on enjoyable activities and solving problems. The impact can be lasting: research shows that acquiring these skills in early childhood is a predictor of later academic and social success.

“Since toddlers are establishing their sleep habits and developing better self-regulation, toddlerhood is a critical period to study sleep,” Molfese said.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health supports this work, part of broader research on early childhood sleep led by Indiana University that involves UNL, University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia. UNL’s funding share is $1.4 million.


“Since toddlers are establishing their sleep habits and developing better self-regulation, toddlerhood is a critical period to study sleep.”
– Victoria Molfese

Molfese and UNL colleagues, educational psychologist Kathleen Rudasill and psychologist Dennis Molfese, are conducting a five-year longitudinal study of 200 children to examine their sleep quantity, quality and variability at six-month intervals. Researchers track children’s night motor activities, which indicate sleep disruptions, and connect the data with parents’ observations to identify patterns between sleep habits and children’s daytime behavior at home, child care and preschool.

Believing that sleep habits begin at home, researchers also investigate how parenting practices, bedtime routines and family stresses may affect toddlers’ sleep.

The team’s findings could lead to more accurate information about the consequences of poor sleep. Another goal is establishing clearer definitions and measures of sleep issues that can be replicated in further studies and compared across labs.

Eventually, Molfese said, parents, caregivers and child development professionals will have better information about sleep problems and their symptoms, plus practical tips for establishing beneficial sleep habits.