When children’s sleep patterns are altered by external factors, this can have consequences. This is the conclusion of a study from the University of Freiburg, which analyzed the sleep of children during the pandemic and their behavior six months later.
The confinement of spring 2020 clearly affected the sleep of babies and young children. That’s the conclusion reached by an online study published in Spring 2021, conducted by the Infant Sleep Lab at the University of Freiburg’s Department of Psychology. However, the shortening of sleep time due to a change in habits can have effects on the development of children, as shown by a complementary study recently published. According to this study, young children who have experienced a greater number of night-time awakenings due to confinement have, six months later, a significantly lower level of inhibitory self-control.
For the study, the parents of 45 children aged 3 to 6 years were interviewed. The questionnaire focused on sleep habits and on the so-called ’executive’ functions, i.e. the complex cognitive processes that regulate actions and thoughts. Specifically, questions were asked about inhibition and impulsivity, flexibility, emotional control, working memory, and planning and organization. The team assessed how the children slept before and during confinement, and how they regulated their behavior six months later.
Nocturnal awakenings with consequences
The results underline that, in children, particularly important modifications of night-time sleep during sensitive periods of development can have consequences on behavior. Indeed, the neuroanatomical circuits involved in emotional processing are built during the preschool years, and executive functions depend on the development of the prefrontal cortex. The main changes could be related to an increase in nocturnal awakenings and an associated significant decrease in the level of inhibitory self-control, which translated into agitation or nervousness. Such a deterioration in sleep quality also led to a lower regulation of emotions. For example, children were more likely to have angry outbursts.
Sleep as a protective shield
In summary, this study supports the hypothesis that sleep is crucial to preserve cognitive developmental processes in preschoolers in a challenging environment such as confinement. Stress has been identified as a major contributor to poor sleep in children, which can, as this study shows, have developmental implications. However, sleep can also play a protective role. For example, getting enough sleep can reduce the negative impact of family stress on cognition. Elements that promote children’s sleep quality include physical activity, parental education, household structure such as the presence of siblings or pets, and caregiver involvement, as well as the use of attention techniques.