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Research Finds Poor Sleep Affects Children’s Mental Health and Emotional Stability

Research Finds Poor Sleep Affects Children’s Mental Health and Emotional Stability

Summer this year seems to be stretching on with no end in sight — each day blurs into the next, nowhere to go and not much to do, it becomes impossible to escape ennui. Such is life in a world gripped by a pandemic.

Adapting to the new normal has been difficult for most of us, but it has been particularly hard for parents. Exhaustion is bound to seep in when you find yourself juggling household chores, work, and looking after the kids all in one go. Of these three, the kids can be the biggest challenge.

A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that almost half of parents of children under the age of 18, report experiencing high stress in the pandemic citing their children’s online education as the most significant stressor.

The demands from home and work coupled with financial uncertainty can be overwhelming for many parents. Moreover, the stress and anxiety the parent’s experience can brush off on the kids who tend to be keen observers and are quick to notice subtle changes in their parent’s temperaments.

The Harris Poll surveyed from April 25 to May 4 titled Stress in America, 2020 Stress in the Time of Coronavirus, Volume 1. The online survey included 3,013 adults residing in the United States and found that 46% of parents report their stress level related to the pandemic as high, rating it between 8 and 10 on a 10-point scale.

It became evident from the survey that children’s online/distance learning was a significant source of stress with almost 71% of parents mentioning it as a major stressor. With schools closed and work-from-home in place for most parents, managing their children’s schedules seemingly adds to the burden.

With stress and exhaustion at an all-time high, it will not be surprising if the children’s daily routine goes out the window. Cooped up indoors for months, and with very little energy left at the end of the day, enforcing lights-out can seem to be a herculean task for parents at their wit’s end.

Most tired parents will probably find themselves wondering; would it really hurt to let the kids stay up late? According to a new study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, it’s not a good idea. The research lead by Candice Alfano, University of Houston professor and director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston, conducted an innovative, experimental study that shows inadequate sleep time affects several aspects of children’s emotional health.

Although previous research found a connection between inadequate sleep and poor emotional health, studies have rarely been conducted on children. The present study closely examined 53 children between the ages of 7 and 11 years for more than a week. An in-lab emotional assessment was performed on the children twice, once after a night of healthy sleep and again following two nights of poor sleep.

Several changes were observed after imposing sleep restrictions on the children in the way they experience, regulate, and express their emotions. Surprisingly, the most significant changes were discovered in response to positive emotional stimuli instead of negative.

The assessment method adopted a multi-pronged approach and involved children viewing a range of pictures and movie clips showing both positive and negative emotions while the researchers noted children’s responses on multiple levels. Furthermore, the researchers collected respiratory sinus arrhythmias (a non-invasive measure of cardiac-linked emotion regulation) and objective facial expressions, in addition to subjective ratings of emotion.

“Studies based on subjective reports of emotion are critically important, but they don’t tell us much about the specific mechanisms through which insufficient sleep elevates children’s psychiatric risk,” Alfano explains.

The researchers noted “deleterious alterations” in children after experiencing poor sleep affecting their emotional arousals, facial expressions, and emotion regulation. When something positive was presented to the children they did not display substantial excitement or happiness.

“The experience and expression of positive emotions are essential for children’s friendships, healthy social interactions, and effective coping. Our findings might explain why children who sleep less on average have more peer-related problems,” she said emphasizing the imputations of her findings for understanding how interrupted sleep may “spill over” into children’s emotional and social lives.

Another important takeaway from the study is that the influence of sleep deprivation on emotion was not the same for all children. The most dramatic transitions in emotional responses following sleep restriction were observed in children suffering from pre-existing conditions of anxiety.

It is critical now more than ever for kids to be able to handle their emotions. Most kids are experiencing a range of complicated feelings in these testing times when COVID-19 has turned their lives upside down. A survey conducted by Save the Children found the following statistics true for the 1,500 families it polled:

  • 52% of the children reported feeling bored at home
  • 49% were terrified of someone close to them contracting COVID-19
  • 34% felt scared
  • 27% felt anxious
  • 22% felt sad

Adjusting to the new normal has been difficult for adults and children alike. Kids are probably reminiscing their old lives, yearning to go back to normalcy, activities, school, and spending quality time with friends and relatives. They are also most likely conscientious of their parent’s economic and societal struggles.

Adhering to a predictable routine, being open about your struggles with your children and making sure they get adequate sleep could help boost their emotional health and help them cope with new challenges.

For a child already struggling with emotional vulnerability, loss of sleep can be aggravating to their emotional and mental health. Alfano believes the results of her study highlight the potential need to assess and prioritize healthy sleep habits for emotionally fragile children.

For the parents, this can mean getting themselves ready for one last battle at the end of a long and tiring day. But for the emotional wellbeing of their children, the struggle is most probably worth it.


Candice A. Alfano, Joanne L. Bower, Allison G. Harvey, Deborah C. Beidel, Carla Sharp, Cara A. Palmer. Sleep restriction alters children’s positive emotional responses, but effects are moderated by anxiety. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2020; DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.13287

Written by Farwa Batool

MSc Biotechnology.
Writer and a mom of two beautiful daughters.

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