Children who experience inadequate or disrupted sleep are at greater risk for developing depression and anxiety disorders later in life, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Houston.
Study leader Candice Alfano, a clinical psychologist and associate psychology professor at the University of Houston, is conducting the study to better understand how poor sleeping patterns during childhood contribute to emotional disorders in later years. The research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
“In particular, we are interested in understanding how children appraise, express, regulate, and later recall emotional experiences, both when sleep is adequate and when it is inadequate,” said Alfano, who is also director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston (SACH).
“We focus on childhood, because similar to problems with anxiety and depression, sleep habits and patterns develop early in life and can be enduring.”
Alfano and co-investigator Cara Palmer, who is a postdoctoral fellow at SACH, are identifying distinct emotional processes that, when disrupted by poor sleep, make children vulnerable to developing anxiety and depression.
To pinpoint these cognitive, behavioral, and physiological patterns of emotional risk, they are temporarily restricting sleep in 50 pre-adolescent children between the ages of seven to 11.
The findings reveal that inadequate sleep impacts children’s emotional health in two basic ways: it creates more negative emotions and also alters positive emotional experiences. For example, after just two nights of poor sleep, children derive less pleasure from positive things, are less reactive to them, and less likely to recall details about these positive experiences later.
When the children get adequate sleep, however, these emotional effects are less apparent.
“Healthy sleep is critical for children’s psychological well-being,” Alfano said. “Continually experiencing inadequate sleep can eventually lead to depression, anxiety, and other types of emotional problems.”
“Parents, therefore, need to think about sleep as an essential component of overall health in the same way they do nutrition, dental hygiene, and physical activity. If your child has problems waking up in the morning or is sleepy during the day, then their nighttime sleep is probably inadequate. This can result for several reasons, such as a bedtime that is too late, non-restful sleep during the night, or an inconsistent sleep schedule.”
Studying the link between poor sleep and maladaptive emotional processing in childhood is essential, says Alfano, because that’s when sleep and emotion regulatory systems are developing.
The increased need for sleep and greater brain plasticity during childhood suggests this to be a critical window of opportunity for early intervention.
Alfano and Palmer authored a recent article in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews in which they reviewed the scientific literature on sleep and emotion regulation, partly to inform the methods of their new study.
In the article, they point out that without adequate sleep, people are less likely to seek out positive or rewarding experiences if they require effort, such as social or leisure activities. Over time, they say, these behavioral changes can elevate risk for depression and an overall poorer quality of life.
“There are multiple emotional processes that seem to be disrupted by poor sleep,” Alfano said. “For example, our ability to self-monitor, pick up on others’ nonverbal cues, and accurately identify others’ emotions diminishes when sleep is inadequate. Combine this with less impulse control, a hallmark feature of the teenage years, and sleep deprivation can create a ‘perfect storm’ for experiencing negative emotions and consequences.”
Source: University of Houston