Disrupted sleep in babies could point to the later development of autism, according to a new study.

New research led by the University of Washington finds that sleep problems in a baby’s first 12 months may not only precede an autism diagnosis, but also may be associated with altered growth trajectory in a key part of the brain, the hippocampus.

In a study published May 7 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers report that in a sample of more than 400 6- to 12-month-old infants, those who were later diagnosed with autism were more likely to have had difficulty falling asleep. This sleep difficulty was associated with altered growth trajectories in the hippocampus.

“The hippocampus is critical for learning and memory, and changes in the size of the hippocampus have been associated with poor sleep in adults and older children. However, this is the first study we are aware of to find an association in infants as young as 6 months of age,” said lead author Kate MacDuffie, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW Autism Center.

As many as 80% of children with autism spectrum disorder have sleep problems, said Annette Estes, director of the UW Autism Center and senior author on the study. But much of the existing research, on infants with siblings who have autism, as well as the interventions designed to improve outcomes for children with autism, focus on behavior and cognition. With sleep such a critical need for children — and their parents — the researchers involved in the multicenter Infant Brain Imaging Study Network, or IBIS Network, believed there was more to be examined.

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