Sarah has covered news topics for digital and print publications. She holds a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Nevada.
Sleep is an essential part of early childhood development, having a direct effect on happiness, alertness and attention, mood, and cognitive performance. Sleep also has a role in a child’s ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors. Without a consistent routine, children may start to experience symptoms of sleep deprivation.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Houston explored whether healthy children’s emotional expressions after partial sleep restriction could predict social problems either at the same time or two years later. The study found that inadequate sleep in children may affect their emotional and social functioning, over time.
The study focused on roughly 40 children, ages 7 to 11. Beginning the study with all subjects healthy and well-rested, the children were shown a range of positive and negative images. Researchers used high definition cameras to assess the children’s facial expressions at the sight of these images.
After the initial assessment, the children’s sleep was monitored. After seven nights of adequate sleep, parents were asked to restrict their children’s sleep to seven hours on the eighth night, then to six hours on the ninth and final night. After this nine-night time period, the children went back to the lab for the same emotional reaction assessment.
Children displayed less positive facial expressions in response to pleasant images when sleep was restricted. This result illustrates how facial expression, a central aspect of social communication, is impacted by sleep loss. To assess the ability to predict social problems through children’s facial expressions, researchers conducted a two-year follow-up assessment, in which parents reported on their child’s social functioning.
Researchers found that while the simultaneous relationship between partial sleep restriction and social problems was not strong, the less positive facial expressions after sleep restriction could more accurately predict social problems in the two-year follow-up.
Determining the causality between inadequate sleep and social problems needs further research; however, researchers note that “emotional expression is a central aspect of social communication that holds increasing importance for peer relationships across early development.”
Another facet of these findings is the potential “de-coupling” effect of sleep loss. While tiredness diminishes facial expressions, it increases responses in emotional regions of the brain. This causes a disconnect between the internal experience of emotion, and the ability to express them outwardly.
Chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to a wide range of health problems. Sleep plays a fundamental role in the effective functioning of nearly all aspects of health, so a persistent lack of sleep creates significant risks to physical and mental health.One of the best ways to promote healthy sleep for a child is by getting them on a consistent routine, giving them security and encouraging them to fall asleep on their own.