How Does Sleep Duration Influence Mental Health of Children?

February 28, 2020
Matthew Gavidia

Sleep duration among adolescents aged 9 to 11 was shown to influence elements of mental health, including depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and cognitive performance, according to study findings.

Sleep duration among adolescents aged 9 to 11 was shown to influence elements of mental health including depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and cognitive performance, according to study findings published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.1

As researchers note, sleep duration plays a key factor in risk of cerebrovascular diseases, mental disorders, and metabolic disorders. In communities exposed to adverse socioeconomic factors, these risks, especially in metabolic disorders, are intensified, with factors such as irregular work schedules and noisy environments found to impede an individual’s sleep quality and duration.

Children and teens pose a high risk toward decreased sleep duration, an issue that has warranted school-based interventions for sleep education and increased parental support. "The recommended amount of sleep for children 6 to 12 years of age is 9-12 hours. However, sleep disturbances are common among children and adolescents around the world due to the increasing demand on their time from school, increased screen time use, and sports and social activities,” said study author Jiang Feng, professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Warwick.

In a previous study, researchers noted that nearly 60% of adolescents in the US receive less than 8 hours of sleep on school nights, which has been linked with affecting school performance and physical and mental health in children and teens.

Researchers sought to further examine the association of adolescent sleep behavior with psychiatric problems, including depression, cognition, and brain structure, by conducting the first large-scale analysis of sleep duration in children. The study analyzed structural MRI in relation to sleep duration, and psychiatric and cognitive measures in 9-11-year-old children (n = 11,067) from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study.

Data was measured utilizing a linear mixed model, mediation analysis, and structural equation methods in a longitudinal analysis.

When analyzing the dimensional psychopathology in the children, including depression, anxiety, and impulsive behavior, negative correlations were found with sleep duration, indicating that less sleep resulted in impaired mental health. Researchers delineated that the brain areas in which higher volume was correlated with longer sleep duration included the orbitofrontal cortex, prefrontal and temporal cortex, precuneus, and supramarginal gyrus.

In the longitudinal data analysis, psychiatric problems, especially among depressive issues, were significantly associated with short sleep duration 1 year later. This link was additionally supported by the mediation analysis, which found that depressive problems significantly mediated the effect of these brain regions on sleep, confirming the relationship between sleep duration and brain structure in accordance with mental health.

"Our findings showed that the behavior problems total score for children with less than 7 hours sleep was 53% higher on average and the cognitive total score was 7.8% lower on average than for children with 9-11 hours of sleep,” said Feng.

Notably, researchers also found that the dimensional psychopathology in parents was correlated with short sleep duration in their children, suggesting that as parents sleep less, so do their children. The study authors highlight that further research is needed to discover the underlying associations between sleep duration in children, brain structure, and cognitive and mental health measures.

Improving sleep behavior in children is a crucial intervention that can lessen risk of potential disorders in the future. As a separate empirical article published in the journal Child Development notes,2 sleep assists minority adolescents with coping against ethnic and racial discrimination, a factor that has contributed to increased incidence of hypertension in African Americans later in life.

“On days when adolescents experienced greater discrimination, if they slept longer and better the previous night, adolescents engaged in greater active coping (problem solving, peer support seeking), and subsequently had better well‐being,” noted the researchers.

Reference

  1. Cheng W, Rolls E, Gong W, et al. Sleep duration, brain structure, and psychiatric and cognitive problems in children [published online February 3, 2020]. Mol Psychiatry. doi: 10.1038/s41380-020-0663-2.
  2. Wang Y, Yip T. Sleep facilitates coping: moderated mediation of daily sleep, ethnic/racial discrimination, stress responses, and adolescent well‐being [published online October 28, 2019]. Child Dev. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13324.