Children who sleep badly “at risk of mental health issues later in life”

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A Goldsmiths researcher has warned we must not ignore the issue of poor sleep in young – as it may be a “red flag” for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

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Studies show that today’s children sleep less than those in the decades before them, but sleep problems are often missed by parents and health-care providers. As a result, sleep problems may be a ‘hidden risk’ when studying mental health conditions, say Dr Alice Gregory (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Professor Avi Sadeh (Tel Aviv University).

Reviewing the last five years of research into the causes, implications and treatments of sleep disorders in children, Gregory and Sadeh found that while it’s a growing field of study, scientists should be focussing even more on this area.

Dr Gregory comments: “Disorders typically start early in life so it’s negligent to ignore the childhood and adolescence period when trying to understand the development of psychopathology.

“Sleep can be assessed very early in life and has found to constitute an early risk indicator of later problems. Our review shows that research in this area has proved fruitful clinically in suggesting that sleep disturbances may serve as a red flag for the development of a host of other disorders.

“For example, in a meta-analysis by Lovato and Gradisar in 2014 it was concluded that sleep problems during adolescence often precede and predict the development of depression and that early detection of sleep problems may therefore be useful.

“Discussing sleep may also provide a starting point from which to build rapport with a health provider. Parents and young people might find that discussing sleep is easier compared to other difficulties, so it can act as a gateway to better communication about those difficulties.”

Gregory and Sadeh’s review found that while sleep problems are common in childhood, research into prevention and treatment techniques has led to successful interventions that also benefit other types of behaviour – such as increasing a child’s sense of security, and reducing irritability and crying.

After analysing research on children’s sleep problems largely conducted since 2010, Gregory and Sadeh are optimistic about growth in this field of study, but suggest that to maximise progress there needs to be:

1)      Greater attention paid to how sleep is measured and assessed in studies. Gregory and Sadeh emphasise the importance of multiple measures to assess sleep and a focus on measuring the severity and duration of sleep difficulties.

2)      Sleep research factored into studies on a wider range of psychiatric disorders. The researchers note that understanding about the association between sleep and depression in youth is becoming more sophisticated, but knowledge linking sleep and certain other disorders lags behind.

3)      A greater focus on the mechanisms underlying the association between sleep problems and psychiatric disorders. For example, do sleep disturbances trigger symptoms of other disorders in those who are at greatest genetic risk?

4)      More research into sleep and symptoms of anxiety and depression during periods of transition and development, from primary to secondary school for example, or in adults, perhaps when becoming parents for the first time.

5)      More large-scale well-designed studies into how best to treat sleep disorders and how to tailor treatment for mental health disorders based on whether a child has sleep problems or not.


‘Sleep problems in childhood psychiatric disorders: A review of the latest science’ by Alice M. Gregory (Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths) and Avi Sadeh (School of Psychological Sciences, Tel Aviv University) is published as part of the 2016 Annual Research Review issue in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 

The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (JCPP) is internationally recognised to be the leading journal covering both child and adolescent psychology and psychiatry. Articles published include experimental and developmental studies, especially those relating to developmental psychopathology and the developmental disorders. The JCPP Annual Research Review (ARR) issue is published each year reviewing the latest advances in the field from the most distinguished experts in the field.