Infants and young children who experience irregular sleep routines and frequently wake up at night are likely to be associated with mental health issues during their teenage years.
Researchers from the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham examined questionnaire data from the UK-based Children of the 90s longitudinal research, which was founded almost three decades ago and recruited expecting mothers of 14,000 kids.
They discovered that frequent nighttime awakenings in early infants and irregular sleep patterns were linked to adolescent psychotic events. Additionally, they discovered that adolescents with borderline personality disorder (BPD) were more likely to have shorter nighttime naps and later bedtimes.
Lead researcher, Dr Isabel Morales-Muñoz, explained: “We know from previous research that persistent nightmares in children have been associated with both psychosis and borderline personality disorder. But nightmares do not tell the whole story — we’ve found that, in fact, a number of behavioural sleep problems in childhood can point towards these problems in adolescence.”
Irregular sleep routines in infancy are linked with psychotic experiences in adolescence
More than 7,000 participants filled out questionnaires about psychotic symptoms in youth and more than 6,000 reported signs of BPD in adolescence. The Children of the 90s research, commonly known as the Avon Longitudinal Research of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) birth cohort, was established by the University of Bristol, and its data were used in the analysis.
Participants’ sleep habits were recorded by parents at ages 6, 18, and 30 months, and then again at ages 3.5, 4.8, and 5.8 years.
The findings, which were published in JAMA Psychiatry, suggest a link between psychotic experiences in adolescents and 18-month-old infants who tended to wake more frequently at night and who had less regular sleep schedules from 6 months of age. This is consistent with the data that implies sleeplessness affects the development of psychosis, but it also raises the possibility that these issues may exist long before psychotic experiences.
Less sleep at night related to Borderline Personality Disorder
At the age of three and a half years, the team also discovered a link between BPD symptoms and children who slept less at night and went to bed later. These findings point to a distinct pathway for BPD that runs from toddlers through adolescents and is distinct from the one associated with psychosis.
Finally, the researchers investigated whether depressive symptoms in 10-year-old children could mediate the associations between newborn sleep and mental illnesses in teenagers. They discovered that depression mediated the relationships between adolescent development of psychosis and childhood sleep problems, but this mediation was not seen in BPD, suggesting a direct link between sleep issues and BPD symptoms.
Professor Steven Marwaha, senior author of the study, added: “We know that adolescence is a key developmental period to study the onset of many mental disorders, including psychosis or BPD. This is because of brain and hormonal changes which occur at this stage. It’s crucial to identify risk factors that might increase the vulnerability of adolescents to the development of these disorders, identify those at high risk, and deliver effective interventions. This study helps us understand this process, and what the targets might be.
“Sleep may be one of the most important underlying factors — and it’s one that we can influence with effective, early interventions, so it’s important that we understand these links.”
About Children of the 90s
Children of the 90s, commonly known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), is a long-term health research project that recruited more than 14,000 expectant mothers between 1991 and 1992. It is based at the University of Bristol. Since then, it has kept a close eye on the well-being and growth of the parents, their kids, and now their grandkids. The Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, and the University of Bristol provide its primary financing.
Materials provided by the University of Birmingham. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Isabel Morales-Muñoz, Matthew R. Broome, Steven Marwaha. Association of Parent-Reported Sleep Problems in Early Childhood With Psychotic and Borderline Personality Disorder Symptoms in Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry, 2020; DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.1875
University of Birmingham. “Infant sleep problems can signal mental disorders in adolescents.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 July 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200701125431.htm>.
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