Lack of sleep increases a child’s risk for developing depression and anxiety disorders later in life.
This was stated by Candice Alfano the principal investigator of the study and director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston (SACH).
Alfano stated that children who experience inadequate or disrupted sleep are more likely to develop depression and anxiety disorders as they grow older.
The study, funded by National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), sought to determine the precise ways inadequate sleep in childhood produces elevated risk for emotional disorders in later years.
“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 a clinical psychologist and associate psychology professor at the University of Houston.
“We focus on childhood, because similar to problems with anxiety and depression, sleep habits and patterns develop early in life and can be enduring,” she remarked.
Alfano and co-investigator Cara Palmer, a postdoctoral fellow at SACH, identified distinct emotional processes that, when disrupted by poor sleep, make children vulnerable to developing anxiety and depression.
Their findings reveal inadequate sleep impacts children’s emotional health not only by creating more negative emotions, but also by altering 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 their normal nightly sleep habits are adequate in duration, however, they’re finding these emotional effects are less apparent.
“Healthy sleep is critical for children’s psychological well-being,” said Alfano. “Continually experiencing inadequate sleep can eventually lead to depression, anxiety and other types of emotional problems.”
She advises parents 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 from several reasons such as a bedtime that is too late, non-restful sleep during the night or an inconsistent sleep schedule,” she noted.
Alfano says studying the link between sleep disruption and maladaptive emotional processing in childhood is essential, because that’s when sleep and emotion regulatory systems are developing.