Children’s expressions tell the story of poor sleep

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Sleep Health | Sleep Review

Researchers have found that inadequate sleep in children affects their emotional functioning in a way that can predict longer-term social problems. A new study published in Affective Science by University of Houston psychology professor Candice Alfano, PhD, examined whether changes in children’s facial expressions after sleep restrictions simultaneously and / or over time predict social problems.

“Sleep problems in children are routinely linked to lower social skills and more problems in peer relationships, but we don’t really understand what drives those associations,” Alfano said in a press release. Based on results from some of her previous research, Alfano hypothesized that the answers might lie in part in the way children’s faces express emotions when they are tired.

To test this theory, Alfano and colleagues examined 37 children between the ages of 7 and 11 during two emotional assessments in the laboratory; one when the children were well rested and another after two nights with partial sleep restrictions. During these examinations, the children viewed positive (think kittens and ice cream) and negative (think a shot and wild dogs) images on a computer screen while a high-resolution camera recorded their facial expressions. Participants’ parents provided reports on their child’s social functioning at this point and about two years later.

“As we suspected, it was reported that children who showed less positive facial expressions in response to pleasant pictures while having restricted sleep had more social problems two years later, even if they had previous social problems under control,” says Alfano.

Although no concurrent relationships were found between sleep-based facial expression changes and social problems, Alfano suggests that this could be due to developmental differences in social behavior and peer relationships.

“For younger children, more explicit behaviors like sharing and taking turns can be more important to friendship than subtle facial expressions. With age, however, emotional expression becomes more important, ”explains Alfano. “Facial expressions not only give others an understanding of how you are feeling, but also have a contagious effect on the feelings of others.”

The results support burgeoning research suggesting poor quality sleep in childhood, which predicts later socio-emotional problems, and also the importance of studies examining how sleep affects multiple facets of children’s mental health and well-being . Facial expression, a central aspect of social communication, is one aspect of emotions that insomnia takes its toll.

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