Children who don’t get enough sleep more likely to battle mental health issues later in life

TRONDHEIM, Norway — As a new school year gets underway, getting kids off their summer sleep schedules may be more important than ever before. A study by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) finds children who don’t get enough sleep at night have a greater risk of developing mental health problems like depression and anxiety when they’re older.

The study by Bror M. Ranum, an NTNU Department of Psychology fellow, follows nearly 800 children over several years to measure sleeping habits and the onset of psychiatric difficulties.

“We’re seeing an association between sleep duration and a risk of symptoms of emotional and behavioral disorders,” Ranum reports in a media release.

Lack of sleep can have long-lasting effects for children

The study reveals boys who sleep fewer hours than recommended develop an increased risk of manifesting behavioral issues. Boys and girls who get less sleep also have greater risks of emotional problems. The Norwegian study focuses on sleep time, not sleep quality.

Researchers measure sleep duration with motion sensors monitoring the children every night for a week. To record mental health difficulties later in life, the study checks in with clinical interviews several times over two years.

The report is part of the larger Tidlig Trygg I Trondheim Project (TtiT), a long-term study examining a thousand children at ages four, six, eight, 10, 12, and 14, with plans to survey the children again when they are 16 years-old. In its mission to examine how mental issues develop in young people, the larger study seeks to explain whether psychological difficulties cause children to sleep less. Their findings reveal sleep duration does influence the risk of mental problems later, but not the other way around.

Ranum makes it clear that there are often wide differences between individual sleep needs. What is too little sleep for one child could be more than normal for others.

“But if you find that your child seems to be under the weather and can’t concentrate, or you notice their mood fluctuate more than normal, then you may want to help them get more sleep,” Ranum recommends.

The study authors hesitates to give parents a blanket sleep duration recommendation, but says that a consistent wake-up time every morning develops healthy sleep habits.

Bad sleep habits get worse with age

The study’s results also reveal how many kids are getting enough sleep and how many are not. On a positive note, only 1.1 percent of the six-year-olds in the study get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep.

Unfortunately, the proportion of children who don’t get enough sleep increases as they age. Researchers find 3.9 percent of eight-year-olds don’t get enough sleep. That rises to 4.2 percent at age 10, and 13.6 percent at age 12.

Bad sleep habits tend to dissipate if kids don’t get enough sleep at age six, but if children still don’t get enough sleep at age 10, those bad habits are likely to stick later in life.

The study uses an average measurement of sleep for a week. To investigate further, they also count the number of nights with less than seven hours of sleep per week and discover many children don’t sleep more than seven hours at least once per week. This off-night occurs in 15.1 percent of six-year-olds, 39.1 percent of eight-year-olds, 45.7 percent of 10-year-olds, and 64.5 percent of 12-year-olds.

The study authors conclude that while parents don’t need to worry unnecessarily, adjustments to sleep routines are advisable if parents think their children’s sleep patterns are being disrupted.

The study was published in Pediatric Research.

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