Now that school is back in full swing, hopefully, your child has been able to settle into some sort of standard routine. With any luck, a good night’s sleep has become part of that schedule. The amount of sleep your kids get matters, especially when they are stressed. A new study in Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests that poor sleep might explain how stress impacts health in kids.
Sleep Vs Fight or Flight
Getting a good night’s sleep might cushion the impact of stress on kids’ cortisol level, which is a hormone produced in the adrenal gland to regulate the body’s cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems. Short-term exposure to cortisol prepares the body for the “fight or flight” response, and long-term exposure to cortisol can put people at risk for health problems, including heart diseases, weight gain and depression.
Defining a Good Night’s Sleep
So, what does it mean to get a good night’s sleep? This study’s researchers define it as sleeping throughout the night without waking up, feeling rested in the morning, and absence of sleep problems, such as nightmares, apnea and snoring. For the study in Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers enlisted 220 kids, aged eight to 18-years-old who gave saliva samples from which their cortisol levels were measured. Additionally, the kids and their parents answered questions about stress, sleep habits and bedtime routines. The researchers found that poorer sleep quality, despite how long kids actually spent sleeping, furthered the negative effects of stress on their cortisol levels, which can intensify their feelings of anxiety.
Other studies on sleep have examined sleep deprivation and it’s affects on anxiety. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that when a person is sleep deprived, activity in the amygdala and insular cortex brain regions is increased. The effects are especially amplified in people who are already natural worriers or anxious. In this specific study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers had 18 young, healthy adults (all of whom had no diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, but who had varying ranges of general levels of anxiety) have a good night’s sleep, and then a night of sleep deprivation. After each night, the participants got brain scans as they underwent an image test.
Researchers found that when the study participants were sleep deprived and undergoing the image test, they had exceedingly high activity in the amygdala and insular cortex brain regions, compared with when they had a full night’s sleep. Meaning, sleep deprivation literally impacts brain activity.
Impact on Families
The implications of sleep issues on families can be challenging and stressful, even impacting the quality of life for the entire family. Connecting sleep problems with daytime behavioral challenges may not be instinctive to parents, because children manifest different symptoms when sleep deprived than adults do. While adults’ sleep deprivation consists of daytime sleepiness, psychomotor slowing, and impairments in cognitive processing and memory, sleep deprivation in children is associated with a range of emotional/behavioral disturbances, including problematic behaviors, attention problems, anxiety/depression, and hyperactivity.
An article in the International Journal of Psychopathology states that partial sleep deprivation and problems initiating and maintaining sleep impact the lives of about 25-40% of normally developing children and adolescents. Moreover, a person’s sleep duration has slowly declined over the last 50 years with the progression of a more intense and demanding pace of life. In a national poll of American children, 34% of toddlers, 32% of preschoolers and 27% of school-aged children were reported to sleep fewer hours than what the parent/caregiver thought they needed.
Sleep and Academics
School performance is most often used as an indicator of both neurobehavioral and cognitive functioning in children. Small group studies of sleep and academic functioning suggest that more sleep does not necessarily result in better school performance. What has been reported, however, is that overall shorter duration of sleep is associated with more behavior problems.
Furthermore, this article lists two specific findings that are significant: Firstly, that there may be a critical period during early childhood when disruptions to the quality and quantity of sleep could result in downstream development of hyperactivity. And secondly, that spindle density (a function that occurs during stage 2 NREM sleep, and may indicate a child’s capacity to cope with challenging social settings and minimize future risk of anxiety and depression), may have some predictive value for social adaption and behavior functioning in children.
Implications for Parents
So what are the implications for parents, as the school year is underway and stress likely is increasing for kids? Specifically for teenagers, who face 45 minutes of homework per class per night, a few extra-curricular activities, and a normal amount of much-needed down time, they are typically not getting the amount of sleep they need each night. Teenagers actually need more sleep than younger kids, not less. Along with getting to bed early with regular sleep and wake times to form healthy sleep habits, it’s important to talk to your kids about the amount of homework they have on their plate, and their time-management skills. Check in to see how they’re doing trying to get everything done. This includes asking if they feel over-scheduled with an after-school job commitment, or other extra-curricular activities that may need to be shuffled and re-prioritized.
Additionally, talk to your kids about avoiding the use of technology before bed and limiting their access to phones or computers at night. Technology is not just a distraction, but electronics literally emit a glow called blue light that has a particular frequency. When it hits the receptors in the eye, it sends a signal to the brain, which suppresses the production of melatonin and keeps kids from feeling tired.
By educating your kids about the importance of making consistent and healthy sleep habits, you are helping them set the foundation for a successful nighttime routine as they get older and establish more autonomy.
“Anxiety Tied to Sleep Deprivation.” Huffington Post. Retrieved September 5, 2015 from www.huffingtonpost.com
Concordia University. “Back to school and back to sleep: Poor sleep might explain how stress affects health in kids, research shows.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 3, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com
Maski, K., & Kothare, S. (2013). “Sleep Deprivation and Neurobehavioral Functioning in Children.” International Journal of Psychophysiology, 89, 259-264.
“Why Are Teenagers So Sleep-Deprived? A perfect storm of biology, technology, and homework.”Child Mind Institute. Retrieved on September 9, 2015 from www.childmind.org