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Sufficient sleep can prevent impulsive behavior in children

Proper sleep may be the secret to helping children better cope with stressful environments and reduce impulsive behavior, according to a recent study from the Youth Development Institute at the University of Georgia.

Study lead author Linhao Zhang is a fourth-year doctoral student at UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“Stressful environments are shown to make adolescents seek immediate rewards rather than delayed rewards, but there are also adolescents who are in stressful environments who are not impulsive. We looked at what explains that link and what makes some people differ from others. One mechanism we found is sleep.”

How the research was conducted 

The research involved an extensive analysis of data collected from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, a comprehensive brain development study funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

The team assessed information from 11,858 children, aged 9-10 years, and led to the discovery that a lack of sleep and prolonged sleep latency – the duration it takes to fall asleep – were significantly associated with impulsive behaviors later on.

The researchers continuously monitored sleep problems and impulsive behaviors over two years at multiple intervals. 

What the researchers learned 

The study revealed that children who received less than the recommended nine hours of sleep or took over 30 minutes to fall asleep were more likely to exhibit impulsive behaviors, such as acting without planning, seeking thrills, and lacking perseverance. 

Interestingly, when sleep problems were not present during the study, impulsivity was also less likely to be observed in the future.

Neurological hyperconnectivity

Another key finding of the study was the role of neurological hyperconnectivity, wherein the adolescents’ brains remained highly active even when not engaged in tasks. 

“This study looked at the default mode network, a brain network related to goal-directed behaviors,” said Zheng. “When this network was hyperactive during resting-state, it could exacerbate the link between stressful environments, sleep, and impulsivity.” 

Zhang plans to further explore this connection in future studies, specifically its potential link to ADHD and the implications this could have on intervention and counseling programs.

Study implications 

The implications of these findings are far-reaching, not only emphasizing the importance of sleep in cognitive and behavioral development but also suggesting cost-effective interventions for aiding the psychological development of children experiencing stress at home. 

“If you want to develop interventions for people in stressful environments, it’s very costly, and sometimes it needs generational work to change. Sleep is a modifiable behavior, however, and these changes can be cost-efficient.”

Critical developmental stage 

Zhang also highlighted the issue of sleep deprivation outside of stressful environments, noting that teenagers often have a circadian rhythm that prefers staying up late and sleeping in. This is often disrupted by early school start times and late nights spent completing homework. 

“A lot of adolescents don’t have enough time to sleep, and they are sleep deprived,” Zhang said. “This study shows why it is important to promote longer sleep duration by delaying school start times or establishing routines so that adolescents know, ‘OK, after this event, I’m going to bed.’”

Zhang emphasized the importance of establishing healthy sleep habits early on, particularly for those in disadvantaged environments. It’s also vital to act early when developing sleep habits, he said. 

“For people who may be in disadvantaged environments, if we can provide some strategies that help sleep, it can have a positive impact, especially for adolescents that are at such a critical developmental stage for their brain development.”

The study is published in the journal Sleep Health.

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