Children Sleep and Mental Health

Ask any parent what they want for their children and it invariably comes back to something along the lines of “health and happiness“. Although the health that often comes to mind usually relates to physical health, we are beginning to understand more about mental health. When we talk about the health of our children, we must also consider their mental health and wellbeing.

Children Sleep
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

There are three simple things we can do to help keep children healthy – diet, exercise, and sleep. We tend to pay a lot of attention to the first two, but sleep is the one most often overlooked. This is despite the abundance of research linking a lack of sleep to a myriad of health problems. It is compounded by the fact that the world we live in demands more time from us than we currently have.

Sleep remains the only currency we have left to trade for more time. Unfortunately, the price is more costly than we believe. A recently published study on children and sleep highlights one of the costs of that reduction in sleeping hours – its negative impact on mental health. Depression, anxiety, impulsive behaviour and poor cognitive performance in children are affected by the amount of sleep they have.

Children’s Mental Health is Affected by Sleep Duration

Sleep states are an active process that supports the reorganisation of brain circuitry. This is essential for children whose brains are developing and reorganising rapidly.

In a recent study from the University of Warwick, 11,000 children aged 9-11 were examined for the relationship between sleep duration and brain structure. Researchers found that the children with shorter sleep duration were associated with depression, anxiety, impulsive behaviour and poor cognitive performance. Children aged 9-11 years old who sleep for less than seven hours were 53% more likely to have behavioural problems compared to those who receive 9-11 hours’ sleep.

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.

Our findings showed that the behaviour 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. It highlights the importance of enough sleep in both cognition and mental health in children.

Professor Jianfeng Feng, Department of Computer Science, University of Warwick
The different parts of the brain affected by sleep (source: University of Warwick)

Study findings:

  • Measures of depression, anxiety, impulsive behaviour and poor cognitive performance in the children were associated with shorter sleep duration.
  • The depressive problems were associated with short sleep duration one year later.
  • Lower brain volume of brain areas involved the orbitofrontal cortex, prefrontal and temporal cortex (which are involved in executive functioning), precuneus, and supramarginal gyrus was found to be associated with the shorter sleep duration.

These are important associations that have been identified between sleep duration in children, brain structure, and cognitive and mental health measures, but further research is needed to discover the underlying reasons for these relationships.

Professor Edmund Rolls, Department of Computer Science, University of Warwick

A previous study showed that about 60% of adolescents in the United States receive less than eight hours of sleep on school nights. For us in Malaysia, that percentage is about 40%. That is still a significant number of children who are not getting the required minimum number of hours of sleep a night. We need to wake up to the importance of sleep and examine how we can correct this imbalance.

Source: Cheng, W., Rolls, E., Gong, W. et al. Sleep duration, brain structure, and psychiatric and cognitive problems in children. Mol Psychiatry (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-020-0663-2

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Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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