Inadequate Sleep Impacts Children's Emotional Health

July 8, 2020

The presence of anxiety symptoms moderated most alterations in emotional processing observed following sleep restriction.

Candice A. Alfano, PhD

A full night of sleep could help regulate the emotional health of pediatric patients.

A team, led by Candice A. Alfano, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Houston, examined how inadequate sleep can have an impact on a child’s emotional health.

There is an abundance of cross-sectional research associating inadequate sleep with poor emotional health. However, experimental studies in children remain rare and the impact of sleep loss is not uniform across individuals.

Pre-existing anxiety could also exacerbate the effects of poor sleep on a child’s emotional functioning.

The investigators examined a sample of 53 children between 7-11 years old. Each participant completed multimodal assessments in the laboratory when rested and following 2 nights of sleep restriction (7 and 6 hours in bed, respectively).

The team monitored sleep with polysomnography and actigraphy and examined subjective reports of affect and arousal, psychophysiological reactivity and regulation, and objective emotional expression during 2 emotional processing tasks, including 1 where children were asked to suppress their emotional responses.

In the assessment, each child viewed a range of pictures and movie clips that elicit both positive and negative emotions. The investigators also collected respiratory sinus arrhythmias and objective facial expressions.

Following the 2 nights of sleep restriction, the researchers observed deleterious alterations in children’s affect, emotional arousal, facial expressions, and emotion regulation primarily in response to positive emotional stimuli.

However, the impact of sleep loss on emotion was not uniform across all the participants.

The presence of anxiety symptoms moderated most alterations in emotional processing observed following sleep restriction.

“Results suggest inadequate sleep preferentially impacts positive compared to negative emotion in prepubertal children and that pre‐existing anxiety symptoms amplify these effects,” the authors wrote. “Implications for children’s everyday socioemotional lives and long‐term affective risk are highlighted.”

A better understanding of the relationship between sleep and psychiatric conditions could pay dividends for adolescents.

A team, led by Faith Orchard, PhD, School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, explored the relationship between sleep problems and anxiety and depression in a sample of adolescents.

Sleep problems remain a common issue for adolescents who also suffer from both anxiety and depression. Recently, researchers have suggested a bidirectional relationship between sleep and psychopathology, including evidence that sleep interventions could alleviate symptoms of both anxiety and depression.

However, little is known about the nature of sleep problems for adolescents with anxiety and depression and whether specific sleeping difficulties are involved in the longitudinal relationship between sleep and the 2 psychiatric conditions.

The investigators examined a sample from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a population-based, prospective, birth cohort looking at children born between 1991-1992.

The team explored data from a subset of participants (n= 5033) who took part in a clinical assessment at age 15, utilizing a self-report on sleep patterns and quality, as well as diagnostic outcomes of anxiety and depression.

The results show that individuals at 15 years old with depression experience struggles with both sleep patterns and sleep quality. On the other hand, patients at 15 with anxiety only reported issues with sleep quality and not sleep patterns.

The study, “Sleep restriction alters children’s positive emotional responses, but effects are moderated by anxiety,” was published online in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.


x