Infant Sleep Problems Can Lead to Mental Disorders in Adolescents

In a new study, scientists have found that specific sleep problems among babies and infants can be linked to future mental disorders in adolescents. These findings were reported today in the Journal of American Medical Association (Psychiatry).

Scientists from University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology wanted to see what long term impact sleep problems had on children.

For this purpose, they studied questionnaire data from the Children of the 90s, a UK-based longitudinal study which recruited pregnant mothers of 14,000 babies when it was set up almost three decades ago.

The team found out that infants who routinely woke up frequently during the night and experienced irregular sleep routines were associated with psychotic experiences as adolescents.

They also found that children who slept for shorter periods at night and went to bed later, were more likely to be associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD) during their teenage years.

Source: The Family and Youth Institute

It’s estimated that 1.6 percent of the adult United States population has BPD, but that number may be as high as 5.9 percent according to some experts. Nearly 75 percent of people diagnosed with BPD are usually women.

Borderline personality disorder is a mental health disorder that impacts the way you think and feel about yourself and others, causing problems functioning in everyday life.

People with BPD suffer from symptoms like fear of abandonment, unstable relationships, unclear or shifting self-image, impulsive, self-destructive behaviors, self-harm, extreme emotional swings, chronic feelings of emptiness, explosive anger, and feeling out of touch with reality.

Source: Percentage of patients with borderline personality disorder and comparison patients with other axis ii disorders who retained three acute and three temperamental borderline symptoms from baseline through five 2-year follow-up periods. –The American Journal of Psychiatry

People with BPD also suffer from other disorders like depression or bipolar disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders. So, it is important to introduce early interventions to reduce this kind of issues.

That is why research into which factors contribute to such personalities is significant. Previous research has shown that persistent nightmares in children are associated with both psychosis and borderline personality disorder. This is the first time that issue related to sleep have been found to be one of the contributing causes.

For the study the research team examined questionnaire data from more than 7,000 participants reporting on psychotic symptoms in adolescence, and more than 6,000 reporting on BPD symptoms in adolescence.

Sleep behavior among participants was reported by parents when the children were 6, 18 and 30 months, and assessed again at 3.5, 4.8 and 5.8 years old.

Source: This figure shows only the direct associations of the independent, mediator, and dependent variables. Night awakening at 18 months of age, regular sleep routines at 6 months and 3.5 and 5.8 years of age, night sleep duration at 3.5 years of age, and bedtime at 3.5 years of age represent the independent variables (exposures); depression at 10 years of age represents the mediator; and psychotic symptoms at 12 to 13 years of age and borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms at 11 to 12 years of age represent the dependent variables (outcomes). The covariates also included in this path analyses were sex, prematurity, maternal age when infant was born, childhood abuse, family adversity, and emotional temperament. Significant pathways are signified by solid arrows and nonsignificant modeled pathways by gray dotted lines. –JAMA Psychiatry

The results showed particular associations between infants at 18 months old who tended to wake more frequently at night and who had less regular sleep routines from 6 months old, with psychotic experiences in adolescence. This finding is in line with previous research that shows insomnia contributes to psychosis.

The team also found that children who had less sleep during the night and went to bed later, after or at the age of 3.5 years were related to BPD symptoms. These results suggest a specific pathway from toddlers through to adolescents with BPD, which is separate from the pathway linked with psychosis.

The research team also looked to see if the links between infant sleep and mental disorders in teenagers could be linked by symptoms of depression in children aged 10 years old.

They found that depression mediated the links between childhood sleep problems and the onset of psychosis in adolescents. But this mediation was not observed in BPD. This suggests that there is a direct association between sleep problems and BPD symptoms.

Source: Sleep Education

In a press release by the University, one of the senior authors of the paper, Professor Steven Marwaha, when talking about the mental disorders related to sleep issues said, “It is 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.”

Many children suffer from difficulty sleeping in their childhood. Common responses of babies experiencing these night awakenings or difficulty going to sleep may include awakening and crying one or more times in the night after previously sleeping through the night, crying when a parent leaves the room, refusal to go to sleep without a parent nearby, and clinging to the parent at separation.

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