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Sleep May Reduce Impulsive Behaviors in Kids

New research suggests that improving sleep quality could help manage impulsivity in children, especially those exposed to stressful environments.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that kids 6-12 years get 9-12 hours of sleep and teens 13-18 years sleep for 8-10 hours per night. However, a CDC study found that nearly 60% of middle school students and 73% of high schoolers do not get these recommended amounts.

While sleep is critical for overall health in adolescence, a new study published in the August issue of Sleep Health found that it might also help manage impulsive behaviors.

For the research, scientists from the Youth Development Institute at the University of Georgia used data from 11,878 children aged 9-11 from the NIH-funded Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study.

The research team investigated the impacts of stressful environments — such as a disrupted home or school life — on sleep, including sleep duration, difficulty falling asleep, and falling back to sleep after waking in the night. They also analyzed sleep indicators that had the most impact on behaviors like thrill-seeking, acting without a plan, and lack of drive.

The team found that children who slept for less than 9 hours or took more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night were more likely to display impulsive behaviors later.

Moreover, these behaviors were less likely in children who didn't experience sleep issues.

The scientists also looked at a default brain network involved in goal-directed behaviors. They found that when this network was active during a resting state, it increased the associations between stressful environments, sleep, and impulsive behaviors.

Moreover, the scientists say these associations could be linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"It's also possible that this hyperactivity and ADHD are highly correlated, so in a future study, we could test that in a more clinical setting. That could have great implications on intervention or counseling programs," said lead author Linhao Zhang, a doctoral student in UGA's College of Family and Consumer Sciences, in a news release.

Zhang also notes that even kids not exposed to stressful environments may experience impulsivity related to poor-quality sleep.

"A lot of adolescents don't have enough time to sleep, and they are sleep deprived. This study shows why it is important to promote longer sleep duration by delaying school start times or establishing routines so that adolescents know, 'OK, after this event, I'm going to bed,'" Zhang explained.

According to the study authors, something as simple as improving sleep routines could be a low-cost strategy for managing impulsive behaviors in children and teens.

Zhang adds, "for people who may be in disadvantaged environments, if we can provide some strategies that help sleep, it can have a positive impact, especially for adolescents that are at such a critical developmental stage for their brain development."


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