When a Child's Boogeyman is Real

Poorer sleep lasts long term for kids after exposure to violence

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) It's no surprise that witnessing or experiencing severe violence affects a child's mental health. But the effects on their sleep can be profound as well.

An unpublished study that will be presented at a sleep conference explored the specifics of how exposure to violence can affect both the duration and the quality of a child's sleep.

"Get your child counseling if they've been exposed to violence."

James Spilsbury, PhD, of the Center for Clinical Investigation at the Case School of Medicine in Cleveland, and colleagues explored not only the quantity but the quality of sleep experienced by children who have had close exposure to violent events.

They studied 46 ethnically diverse children, aged 8 to 16, who were enrolled in a social service program specifically for children who had directly experienced or witnessed violence.

Most of the children came from low socioeconomic groups and lived in city neighborhoods. The researchers took into account the children's age, gender, family income and exposure to violence over the previous year that was unrelated to the specific violence that triggered the child's involvement in the program.

For seven days, the researchers measured the amount and quality of sleep of the children using actigraphs. These sensoring devices are worn by the children to measure their activity day and night.

They also asked the families to keep a sleep journal for the children. Three months later, the researchers conducted a follow-up with the children.

The researchers specifically looked at how much sleep the children got each night, how much their sleep times changed from one night to the next, how efficient their sleep was and what their bedtime was.

The findings showed a correlation between the severity of the violence experienced and less time sleeping three months later for the younger children, aged 8 to 11.

They also found that children who are directly victimized during a violent event have poorer sleep for less time than children who observed an event but were not personally victimized by it.

Children who witnessed a murder gradually have less consistent sleep as time goes on after the violence.

"Violence permeates our society, and this work is showing that experiencing even a single violent event as a victim or as a witness may influence sleep behavior in different ways, which in turn may negatively affect a child's health and functioning," Spilsbury said.

Among the health problems that can be sparked or made worse by poor sleep are heart disease, stroke, depression, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.

No association was found between post-traumatic stress syndrome and sleeping quality or quantity.

The study was presented June 13 at the 26th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Boston. Because the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, its results should be regarded as preliminary and still require review by researchers in the field.

The research was funded by the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Clinic Multidisciplinary Clinical Research Training Program through a grant from the National Institutes of Health. No conflicts of interest were noted.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 11, 2012
Last Updated:
October 22, 2012