Do sleep disturbances in childhood predict the presence of mental disorders in adolescence?
According to a study conducted by a team from the School of Psychology of the University of Birmingham, specific sleep problems between infants and very young children can be linked to mental disorders in adolescents (Lereya et al., 2017).
The UK-based longitudinal study was conducted on 14,000 pregnant women and the results show that young children who woke up regularly at night and experienced irregular sleep routines tended to develop psychotic symptoms in adolescence. It also emerges that children who sleep little at night and go to bed late are more likely to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) during their adolescence.
Previous research has shown that persistent nightmares in children correlate with the development of psychosis and borderline personality disorder (Lereya et al., 2017).
The researchers looked at data from 7,000 participants who reported psychotic symptoms and over 6,000 individuals who showed symptoms of borderline personality disorder. The data analyzed come from the Children of the 90s study (also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children – ALSPAC birth cohort) which was established by the University of Bristol.
The sleep behavior of the participants was monitored by the parents when the children were 6, 18 and 30 months old and evaluated again at 3, 4, 5 and 8 years (Lereya et al., 2017).
The results, published in JAMA Psychiatry, show significant associations with psychotic experiences in adolescence, among 18-month-old children who tended to wake up more frequently at night and who had an abnormal sleep routine as early as 6 months of age (Lereya et al., 2017).
This supports the existing evidence that insomnia contributes to psychosis, but suggests that these difficulties may already exist years before psychotic experiences occur.
The team also found that children who slept less at night and went to bed later at the age of three and a half tended to develop borderline personality disorder.
Finally, the researchers found that depression mediated the links between childhood sleep problems and the onset of psychosis in teenagers, but this mediation was not observed in borderline personality disorder, suggesting the existence of a direct association between sleep problems and symptoms of BPD (Lereya et al., 2017).
Professor Steven Marwaha, senior author of the study, suggests that it is critical to identify risk factors that could increase adolescent vulnerability to the development of these disorders, identify high-risk ones and consequently provide effective interventions.
According to the authors of the article, sleep may be one of the most important factors underlying certain mental disorders; if so, acting promptly when sleep problems begin to arise in childhood, could act as a prevention of mental disorder in adolescence (Lereya et al., 2017).