Sleep Health | Sleep Review
In a study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Candice Alfano, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Houston and director of the Houston Sleep and Anxiety Center, reports the results of an experimental study that shows that inadequate night sleep can affect various aspects of changes children’s emotional health.
Although numerous correlation studies link inadequate sleep to poor emotional health, experimental studies in children are rare. Alfano and her team examined 53 children aged 7 to 11 for more than a week. The children performed an emotional assessment twice in the laboratory, once after a night of sound sleep and again after two nights in which their sleep was restricted by several hours.
“After a sleep restriction, we have seen changes in the way children experience, regulate and express their emotions,” Alfano said in a press release. “To our surprise, however, the most important changes were identified in response to positive rather than negative emotional stimuli.”
When assessed using multiple methods, children saw a series of pictures and film clips that evoked both positive and negative emotions, while the researchers recorded how children reacted on multiple levels. In addition to subjective ratings of emotions, researchers collected sinus arrhythmias (a non-invasive index of cardiac emotion regulation) and objective facial expressions. Alfano points out the novelty of these data. “Studies based on subjective reports of emotions are critically important, but they do not say much about the specific mechanisms by which inadequate sleep increases children’s psychiatric risk.”
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Alfano highlights the implications of her findings for understanding how poor sleep can spill over into children’s everyday social and emotional lives. “Experiencing and expressing positive emotions is critical to child friendships, healthy social interactions, and effective coping. Our results could explain why children who sleep less on average have more problems with their peers, ”she says.
Another key finding from the study is that the impact of sleep loss on emotions was not consistent across all children. Children with major pre-existing anxiety symptoms, in particular, showed the most dramatic changes in emotional response to sleep restriction.
According to Alfano, these results underscore the potential need to evaluate and prioritize healthy sleeping habits in emotionally vulnerable children.
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