Research blog: The effect of sleep deprivation on children in high-risk homes

Ilana Hairston PhD

Ilana Hairston PhD

Dr. Ilana Hairston describes the effect of sleep deprivation on children in high-risk homes.

Could you describe the aim of the study?

The study is part of the Michigan Longitudinal Study (MLS), led by Robert Zucker, Ph.D., Professor in Psychiatry and former director of the U-M Addiction Research Center. For 29 years, the MLS has been investigating the many risk factors that underlie the development of substance abuse. Research in the past several years has demonstrated that sleep plays an important role in mental health and behavioral problems in children, leading to long-term consequences to well-being.  With this in mind, we set out to assess the role that sleep plays in behavioral and emotional problems of children living in high-risk environments.

What would you say are the key take-home messages from this study?

The take-home message from the study is that some aspects of the environment in high-risk homes may interfere with the child’s opportunity to obtain sufficient sleep. This lack of sleep, in turn, may exacerbate other aspects of risk, such as impaired behavioral and emotional regulation.

How would these findings impact clinical practice?

It has long been the contention of practitioners in the sleep medicine field that it is essential to address a lack of sleep, whether due to environmental, physical, or mental health factors that interfere with sleep.  This is further underscored in the context of development, especially among children living in environments that incur other forms of risk, such as parents with substance use problems.

Child exhausted in car, rainy day

Child taking a quick nap in car

We therefore stress that teachers and other practitioners who work with children should pay attention to the potential role of lack of sleep among children who display behavioral and emotional problems.  Intervening to raise awareness of parents to healthy sleep hygiene practices is a simple intervention that could improve daytime function and coping skills, thereby having both short- and long-term benefits to the child’s well-being.

Such interventions are fairly simple to implement, even via the telephone – as has been recently demonstrated by Stuttard and colleagues (Stuttard et al., Child Care Health Dev. 2015 41:1074-81), and can be efficacious in normative children (Quach et al., Pediatrics 2011;128:692-701) and children with behavioural problems, such as ADHD (Hiscock et al., BMJ. 2015; 350: h68).

What future studies would you recommend to further establish these results?

Future studies will further investigate the role of sleep in mechanisms of risk, looking at long-term trajectories, both behaviorally and on brain maturation.

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Latest update: June 6, 2016