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Good sleep hygiene could protect your child’s long-term mental health

Posted on January 14th, 2020

There’s a reason that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. If you deprive an adult of sufficient sleep, their mental and emotional states will quickly deteriorate. But what happens when an otherwise healthy child has reduced sleep over a long period?

Researchers in Norway recently studied a group of 799 children and recorded their sleep behaviors at ages 6, 8, 10, and 12. They compared the length of sleep to the risk of developing emotional or behavioral issues 2 years later.

In a study published in JAMA Network Open, they discussed their findings, which suggest that even 30 minutes of reduced sleep each night can lead to symptoms of emotional and behavioral disorders 2 years later. Kids who aren’t sleeping are at a higher risk for anxiety, depression, oppositional defiant disorder, and ADHD.

The researchers proposed several ways in which short sleep might affect mental health. In the first place, a lack of sleep places the body under stress. Children under stress have a harder time learning, processing emotions, and following directions. Over time, there may be a snowball effect as stress-related problems continue to build and feed into one another.

Some studies have also suggested that sleep deprivation affects a person’s ability to understand and act on subtle social cues. In a child, failing to recognize these cues can look like disobedience. So the child is punished and berated without understanding what he did wrong. Over time, this negative environment can lead to anxiety and depression. In some children, this might take the form of acting out. “If I’m going to get in trouble no matter what, I might as well get it out of the way…”

Finally, studies suggest that sleep deprivation can lead to a negative remembering bias.  Children who aren’t sleeping tend to remember negative events more strongly than positive ones. They may even forget the positive experiences altogether. Over time, this can lead to a negative view of themselves, their lives, and their futures, and can trigger anxiety and depression.

This sounds like a fairly depressing bit of news, but the researchers were able to offer some hope to parents, educators, and medical practitioners. If poor sleep can cause mental illness in children, healing a child’s sleep may prevent some mental illnesses.   

What can you do? If you have a child who you suspect isn’t sleeping well, tell your medical providers and ask for a sleep evaluation. Ask your dentist to examine your child for signs of sleep apnea at your next appointment. Your child’s sleep is important.   

If you’re a dental or medical practitioner, learn all you can about your role in preventing, identifying, and treating pediatric sleep disorders. Make your practice a place that helps your patients get the sleep they need. 

When children aren’t getting enough sleep, it’s a serious problem. But parents and practices can work together to fix kids’ sleep and change kids’ lives.

Dr. Meghna Dassani has practiced dentistry for over two decades and is passionate about the role dentists play in whole-body health. You can learn more at her website: MeghnaDassani.com

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