A new study has linked inadequate sleep to mental health complications in young people. The research reveals that sleep deprivation may compromise the emotional well-being of children.
Study lead author Dr. Candice Alfano is a professor of Psychology at the University of Houston and the director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston.
“After sleep restriction, we observed changes in the way children experience, regulate and express their emotions,” said Dr. Alfano. “But, somewhat to our surprise, the most significant alterations were found in response to positive rather than negative emotional stimuli.”
A growing collection of research shows that sleep deprivation can damage emotional health, yet there has been a lack of experimental studies to investigate this correlation in children.
For the current study, Dr. Alfano and her team assessed 53 children between the ages of 7 and 11 using a variety of methods. The children participated in two emotional assessments – one following a night of healthy sleep and one following two nights of extremely restricted sleep.
The children viewed a range of pictures and movie clips to evoke both positive and negative emotions. The researchers recorded how the children responded on multiple levels, including their facial expressions.
The team also collected respiratory sinus arrhythmias, an indicator of cardiac-linked emotion regulation, for a more objective approach.
“Studies based on subjective reports of emotion are critically important, but they don’t tell us much about the specific mechanisms through which insufficient sleep elevates children’s psychiatric risk.”
According to Dr. Alfano, the findings may provide a new understanding of how poor sleep can “spill over” into children’s everyday social and emotional lives.
“The experience and expression of positive emotions are essential for children’s friendships, healthy social interactions and effective coping. Our findings might explain why children who sleep less on average have more peer-related problems,” said Dr. Alfano.
The study also showed that the emotional impacts of sleep loss were not consistent among the children. In particular, children with pre-existing anxiety symptoms exhibited the most dramatic emotional responses to sleep deprivation.
Dr. Alfano said the results highlight a need to prioritize healthy sleep habits in emotionally vulnerable children.
The study is published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.