Researchers Think They Can Predict A Child's Future Social Problems Based On Their Sleep-Related Facial Expressions

Researchers at the University of Houston think that the quality of sleep a child has now may be linked to how they will handle future social situations.

An image of a baby smiling.
Photo: Getty Images.

If you've ever been in the presence of a child who didn't get much sleep the night before, chances are good you got a front seat to a pretty grouchy attitude. Being tired can make even the most poised and rational among us feel frayed and irritable. But what if I told you science thinks that when your kid is cranky from not getting enough sleep, those same snarling faces they make out of sheer tiredness could predict how they handle future social problems? It might sound wild, but stay with me, because things are about to get interesting.

Candice Alfano, professor of psychology at the University of Houston, has published a new study in Affective Science that looks closely at how changes in children's facial expressions after not getting enough sleep could predict their future social problems.

"Sleep problems in children are routinely linked with lower social competence and more problems in peer relationships, but we really don't understand what drives these associations," Alfano wrote in the study.

Alfano and her team assessed 37 children between the ages of 7 and 11 in two different tests. In the first, the kids were well-rested from having an appropriate amount of sleep the night before. In the second test, the kids' sleep was restricted, leaving them tired and cranky the following day. During the evaluation in Alfano's lab, kids were shown two sets of images; some images had positive associations such as rainbows and ice cream, and others portrayed negative associations such as barking dogs or getting a shot. While the kids viewed these images, a camera recorded their facial expressions. Two years later, parents were asked to give reports on how their kids managed socially.

In the study, Alfano wrote, "Children who displayed less positive facial expressions in response to pleasant images when sleep-restricted were reported to have more social problems two years later, even when controlling for earlier social problems."

So, what does this mean? Alfano and her team think that the amount of quality sleep kids get when they're young can help them do better socially in the future. This particular study dovetails nicely with a growing body of research that appears to show how quality sleep can have huge impacts on a child's future self, from mental and physical to social health.

But for parents of kids who struggle to go to or stay asleep, a study like this may feel stressful to read. According to Yale Medicine, sleep issues among children are common, and up to 40% of parents will seek help for their child's sleep issues. And sometimes those sleep issues are symptoms of health problems such as respiratory issues, restless leg syndrome, sleep disorders, sleep apnea, and more.

Rest assured, though. Just because a child experiences problems sleeping does not necessarily mean they'll be dealing with a lifetime of health or social issues. Experts agree that many common sleep problems can be alleviated by adopting a healthy sleep hygiene routine.

What does a healthy sleep hygiene routine look like? Here are a few tips that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend:

  • Create a consistent bedtime routine for your child that includes the same bedtime and wake-up time.
  • Make the bedroom cozy for sleep by keeping it dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature.
  • Keep all screens and tech gadgets out of the bedroom.
  • Avoid eating a huge meal right before bed.
  • Keep a healthy, active lifestyle with plenty of exercises during the day so that sleep is easier to come at night.
  • Sing softly or read a bedtime book with your child before they go to sleep.

If your child still has sleep problems despite sticking to a healthy sleep routine, then it might be time to see your pediatrician to talk about a sleep study. Yale Medicine suggests that kids who exhibit the following symptoms may need to be assessed by a medical professional:

  • Kids who can't seem to fall asleep
  • Frequently waking during the night
  • Having trouble waking up in the morning
  • Loud snoring
  • Hyperactivity
  • Daytime sleepiness

So, the next time your child has a tough time falling or staying asleep, it might be worth asking if your family's bedtime routine needs to be tweaked or if your child could be having some other health issues happening that disrupt their Zzzs.

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