Science Journalism

Sleep and emotion processing in childhood – a brief literature screening

Text: Fabienne Sunier, Salome Kurth

Early childhood is a period in which many fascinating changes in sleep are happening. For example, sleep is more and more known to play a role in the processing of emotions. Poor sleep in children can accompany symptomatics of emotional dysregulation, emotional problems or in extreme cases psychiatric disorders. But many fundamental questions still remain – because only a handful of studies investigated the sleep-emotion concept in childhood. 

We thus here briefly review the current state of research on sleep and emotion regulation in children and adolescents (0-18 years). We screened the database PubMed with keywords “sleep”, “emotion processing”, “children”, “babies” and “childhood” with the Boolean operator “AND” and “OR”. Seven studies were extracted with these search terms. 

These reports demonstrate that sleep restriction reduces positive emotion responses in toddlers (age 30-36 months)1, and that adequate sleep is important for social-emotional functioning in early childhood (age 40-48 months)2. Particularly daytime napping is relevant for positive emotions in toddlers (age 2-36 months)3. The value of daytime naps is also confirmed by Miller et al.4, showing that nap deprivation in toddlers (age 30-36 months) negatively affects self-regulation strategies. A neuroimaging (fMRI) study reports that conflict between parents affects infants’ brain response in sleep: the brain regions relevant to emotion and stress regulation react strongest to conflict (age 6-12 months)5. Also at school-age (8-12 years) sleep restriction can impair positive affective responses and emotion regulation6. This is also supported by an investigation with adolescents (age 15-19 years), where sleep deprivation decreased positive mood7.

Thus, our knowledge about sleep and emotion processing in children and adolescents is today still limited. The fundament of this science are experiments with acute sleep restriction and outcome measures of self-regulation or positive emotions. Overall, this science supports the concept that the duration and timing of sleep (bedtimes of day-time sleep as well as night-time sleep) are connected to emotion processing. Only a few studies of these have implemented actigraphy (movement sensors) to measure sleep, which remains to be intensified in the next steps.


  1. Berger, R. H., Miller, A. L., Seifer, R., Cares, S. R. & LeBourgeois, M. K. Acute sleep restriction effects on emotion responses in 30- to 36-month-old children. J Sleep Res 21, 235-246, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2869.2011.00962.x (2012).
  2. Schumacher, A. M. et al. Sleep Moderates the Association Between Response Inhibition and Self-Regulation in Early Childhood. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol 46, 222-235, doi:10.1080/15374416.2016.1204921 (2017).
  3. Bacaro, V. et al. The Association between Diurnal Sleep Patterns and Emotions in Infants and Toddlers Attending Nursery. Brain Sci 10, doi:10.3390/brainsci10110891 (2020).
  4. Miller, A. L., Seifer, R., Crossin, R. & Lebourgeois, M. K. Toddler’s self-regulation strategies in a challenge context are nap-dependent. J Sleep Res 24, 279-287, doi:10.1111/jsr.12260 (2015).
  5. Graham, A. M., Fisher, P. A. & Pfeifer, J. H. What sleeping babies hear: a functional MRI study of interparental conflict and infants’ emotion processing. Psychol Sci 24, 782-789, doi:10.1177/0956797612458803 (2013).
  6. Vriend, J. L. et al. Manipulating sleep duration alters emotional functioning and cognitive performance in children. J Pediatr Psychol 38, 1058-1069, doi:10.1093/jpepsy/jst033 (2013).
  7. Lo, J. C., Ong, J. L., Leong, R. L., Gooley, J. J. & Chee, M. W. Cognitive Performance, Sleepiness, and Mood in Partially Sleep Deprived Adolescents: The Need for Sleep Study. Sleep 39, 687-698, doi:10.5665/sleep.5552 (2016).

Photo from Caleb Woods, Unsplash

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