Why Tracking a Child’s Sleep is Important for their Health (and Yours!)

Laurence Weir, Biomedical Engineer
By: Laurence Weir
Medical Technology Lead
24th June 2021

The quality of a child’s sleep can have a huge impact on their lives. As many parents already know, insufficient good quality sleep is linked to chronic behavioural problems, obesity, ADHD, and a string of other medical issues. Snoring, caused by particular physiology or illness, can limit the body’s natural sleep cycles, especially the ability to enter deep sleep. Bed wetting has also been linked to a lack of deep sleep, as entering that sleep stage naturally reduces urine production. But since adults will normally be sleeping themselves through much of the night, unless the child is physically waking up enough to disturb the parents, poor sleep patterns can often go undetected.

A story that circulated in the news last year featured a mother at her wit’s end due to her 6-year-old son’s aggressive behavioural problems. It was a fortuitous piece of feedback that she received, after sharing a picture of her sleeping son in her arms, that led to a breakthrough. The son was sleeping with his mouth open, implying that his nasal pathway was mostly blocked. This was impairing his breathing and reducing the levels of oxygen getting to his brain while sleeping. After surgery to treat the condition, his behavioural problems improved dramatically.

For caring for kids with conditions like autism, epilepsy, and diabetes, waking up many times in the night becomes a torturous ritual. A bad night’s sleep can lead to aggressive behaviour and unwillingness to play in all children (and adults). Coupled with parents and siblings dealing with their own problems due to sleep deprivation, this can have a hugely disruptive impact on the family, day and night.

With the development of smartwatches in the previous decade, there is now an emerging market in personal sleep tracking devices. They use the movement of your body, as well as some biometric signals, to estimate the quality and length of your different sleep cycles. Even though this analysis can be very useful, it is not as accurate as you would get with a polysomnographic study undertaken in a sleep clinic. One key aspect of monitoring which is lacking from wrist worn devices is video recording and analysis. This is understandable, as being videoed in the bedroom while you sleep is not something that would be generally acceptable to the public.

It is also important to realise the agency that many adults have in their lives to improve sleep patterns. I would argue I am both capable of telling how good my sleep was by how I feel, and knowing the causes of the occasional bad night’s sleep. Choose one of stress, caffeine, noise, or violent video games. However, my children are completely incapable to articulating or understanding the quality of their sleep.

However, putting a camera in a young child’s bedroom is relatively normal practice. As an upgrade from the standard audio monitor, a video display allows parents to see if their child is waking up, moving around too much, or just being temporarily disturbed by something.

The addition of other sensors, such as radar or thermal imaging technology is the obvious next step. The data that these sensors could produce would easily be integrated and assessed to provide a clear evaluation of the sleep cycles of the child. This would importantly allow parents to understand what factors might have contributed to that poor night’s sleep, and to some extent predict the child’s behaviour. Body temperature readings would anticipate fevers. Ambient temperature readings would allow parents to appropriately dress their kids at night, as well as ventilate or heat the bedroom. Sleep cycles could also be linked to noise and light stimuli. Complex events like sleepwalking would be recorded so that children could be kept safe.

This is the kind of data that smartwatches are trying to extrapolate from a wrist worn device. With reduced privacy implications when monitoring children, this new data would benefit parents and children alike. The analysis reports on a smartphone or watch could alert parents to critically important information in the health and development of their children. With the experience and ability to create multi-sensor consumer devices, Plextek is optimally placed to work with companies to create these novel devices.