Children’s sleep and mental health development

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Children’s sleep and mental health development

Did you know that sleep can play an important role in the development of mental health problems in children? I am a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki and also Honorary Research Fellow here at the University of Birmingham at the Institute for Mental Health The topic of my fellowship is to study sleep development in children and to investigate the associations between sleep problems and mental health difficulties in children. To do this I have access to a large longitudinal cohort that is based in Finland and the name of this cohort is the Child Sleep Cohort.

In this study they recruited around 1,400 mothers in Tampere, a city in Finland. They recruited these mothers during pregnancy and they followed these mothers when the infant was born and then as well at the age of 3 months, 8 months, 18 months and 24 months and finally at the age of 5 years. We have information about the parent reported data on sleep development and sleep problems at all these time points for the whole cohort, but as well we have objective information using autograph data on sleep development.

Actigraphy is a wristwatch that can be placed on the wrist or on the ankle and it provides information about activity and inactivity patterns and using a specific algorithm we can transform these activity and inactivity patterns into sleep/wake information. In addition to this sleep information using subjective and objective data, we also have parent reported information on several mental health problems, for example emotional and behavioral problems or cognitive deficits.

What we have found recently is that indeed several sleep problems during very early stages of life are associated with behavioral and emotional problems at the age of 2 years. More specifically for example, shorter sleep and high frequency of night awakenings at the ages of 3 and 8 months already are longitudinally associated with internalizing and deregulation problems at the age of 2 years.

Internalizing problems refer for example

  • Anxiety
  • depression symptoms

While deregulation refers to the inability to control your own emotions and behaviors. In a similar way we have recently published that shorter sleep at the age of 3 months already is longitudinally associated with attention-deficit at the age of 5 years. The main message that I want to transmit here is that sleep and mental health problems in children are not independent realities that can be separated one from the other, but indeed they happen to appear together and correlate to each other, and based on the findings of this study, we can suggest that indeed sleep problems in very early stages of life precede.

So they appear before, the development of these mental health problems. So finally the next step that we should start doing is to define better targeted sleep interventions in early childhood in order to see whether we are able to address these earlier sleep difficulties or specific sleep problems at these very early stages of life and if this can prevent or ameliorate the development of future mental health problems.

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