AUBURN – A study conducted at Auburn University looked at the ties between children’s sleep and their emotional development, and found that poor children fared worse from sleep disruptions than their peers. The study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, appears in the May/June 2010 issue of the journal Child Development.
In the study, led by Mona El-Sheikh, Alumni Professor of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Sciences, the researchers looked at how disruptions in the amount, quality and schedule of sleep affect children’s adjustment. They examined more than 140 children in third to fifth grades, of whom three-quarters were white and almost a quarter were African American. Families varied widely in terms of annual income and parents’ education and jobs.
The study gathered information from parents’ and children’s reports, as well as motion sensors worn by the children at night to examine their sleep. The researchers looked at relations between sleep and emotional development when children were in third and fifth grades. They also compared how children’s sleep when they were in third grade was related to their well-being when they were in fifth grade.
Findings indicate that children from poorer families had higher levels of externalizing symptoms such as aggression and delinquency as well as internalizing symptoms such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, when they slept poorly. On the other hand, when these children slept better, their levels of symptoms were similar to those of other children from nonpoor families.
A similar pattern held for African American children. Lack of sleep may combine with other stressors in the lives of low-income and minority children to contribute to the higher levels of behavior problems. However, for minority children, getting enough sleep protects against a wide range of adjustment problems, the authors suggest.
“The significance of children’s sleep to their development is receiving increased attention,” El-Sheikh said. “Our finding can inform intervention programs as well as parent education programs. Programs that are tailored to families’ resources and challenges are likely to be more effective.”
The research conducted at Auburn University supports mounting evidence linking sleep to day-to-day functioning in childhood, and highlights the role of sleep in a wide range of behavioral problems in high-risk children.