Sleep is an important function in child development. It is essential for the maintenance of physical and mental health. Young children require a large amount of sleep to support their bodies’ growth and allow their brains to mature and develop properly. There is a limited amount of research on sleep and its effects on child development, but what does exist shows that sleep problems are linked to psychological problems in children. Mona El-Sheikh wanted to extend the existing body of research to get a broader picture of how sleepiness affects overall functioning in children. In a recent study, El-Sheikh assessed 251 children over a three-year period. She recruited the children when they were 8 years old, and comprised her sample of African-American and European-American children from varying socioeconomic statuses (SES). She evaluated how sleep affected future psychological outcomes—specifically anger, anxiety, depression, and aggression.
El-Sheikh discovered that the children who had more difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep had higher rates of internalizing at year three, which manifested as symptoms of anxiety and depression. This was especially true for the female participants, the low-SES children, and the African-American participants. El-Sheikh believes that because girls appear to be more susceptible to mood problems in adolescence, the lack of sleep during preadolescence could increase their risk at an even earlier age. “There were large differences in depression for girls with higher and lower levels of sleepiness, indicating that girls are more vulnerable than boys in this context,” she said.
Although this study was quite diverse, it should be considered in light of some limitations. First, the data was gathered over a three-year period. Future work should extend the study period to include the dynamic shift from preadolescence to adolescence to get a better picture of the long-term psychological effects of sleep impairment. Also, research should address the question of why lack of sleep seems to impair African-Americans more than European-Americans. Exploration into the SES factor and cultural issue could provide greater insight into this important area of study.
El-Sheikh, M., Bub, K. L., Kelly, R. J., Buckhalt, J. A. (2012). Children’s sleep and adjustment: A residualized change analysis. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030223
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