Children diagnosed with attention disorders may just be suffering from a poor night's sleep.
Australian specialist Dr Arthur Teng said the effects of a child not sleeping were similar to the symptoms of an ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) child.
"While adults who haven't had enough sleep tend to get drowsy, children are the opposite. You often hear parents complain their child has been cranky and not paying attention," he said.
Teng presented international research yesterday at an Australasian sleep conference showing children with mild ADHD were five times more likely to have an undiagnosed sleep disorder than children with more severe ADHD.
"ADHD is not a specific diagnosis, there are no blood tests to say a child has it," said Teng. He said few doctors diagnosing problems with children asked about their sleeping patterns and it was possible some children had sleep disorders.
"Perhaps it's sleep apnoea (breathing stops during sleep) that's causing the ADHD."
Teng and other sleep specialists at this weekend's Auckland conference are calling for more research into the impact of poor sleep on children.
"We're definitely under-sleeping as a world population. All of our lives are getting busier and children aren't sleeping as well as they should," said Starship paediatric sleep specialist Gillian Nixon.
Most people need six to eight hours of sleep a night.
Research shows about 25% of New Zealanders have a chronic sleep problem. People who lived in lower socio economic areas, were unemployed, or worked shifts had a higher chance of sleep difficulties.
Studies link insomnia with obesity, depression and diabetes, while Australian statistics reveal one in six road fatalities and as many as 52% of work-related accidents involved sleep deprivation.
Wellington specialist Dr Ricci Harris said a study of more than 7000 people showed that Maori were nearly twice as likely to have sleep apnoea symptoms than other ethnic groups.
She predicted that with fewer than 20 hospital beds across the country dedicated to sleep disorders, waiting lists would continue to grow.
A new sleep facility opening in Christchurch this week should pave the way for more thorough investigations into South Island children's sleep disorders.
Studies showed that children who snored were more likely to suffer learning disabilities, said Teng.
Nixon cautioned that parents should not accept sleep problems in children as normal.
"Lack of sleep in children can lead to poor growth, difficulty concentrating and problems with behaviour, which puts extra stress on them and their families."