Poverty Impacts Sleep Quality in Early Life: Repercussions for Long-term Health Outcomes

It is well known that being raised in poverty poses barriers to healthy developmental outcomes. A recent publication from Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences describes how children living in poverty are more likely to have disrupted and dysregulated sleep patterns. These sleep disruptions can have negative impacts on the developing brain and are themselves linked to later physical health problems.

In “Sleep, Poverty, and Biological Stress: Mitigating Sleep Health Disparities in Early Childhood,” authors Amanda R. Tarullo, Arcadia R. Ewell, and Michelle M. Garrison outline how infants and children living in poverty are more likely to experience sleep problems (e.g., insufficient sleep duration, lower sleep quality) when compared to children at-large. These problems may be a factor of crowded living situations, housing disrepair, and facets of broader neighborhood disadvantage.

Sleep is a critical part of healthy biological and neurological development. During sleep, the brain consolidates memories and the connections between neurons are generated, refined, and strengthened. When infants and children experience disrupted sleep, their brains are not able to engage in these important restorative processes, which is thought to be why disrupted sleep early in life is linked with poorer cognitive development.

Another way that the effects of disrupted sleep during infancy and childhood get under the skin is by altering their biological stress response systems. Specifically, the authors describe how disrupted sleep early in life can impact how the body produces and processes the stress hormone cortisol. Researchers believe that these alterations to stress response systems partially explains the association between poverty and poor physical health outcomes later in life.

Fortunately, the damaging effects of poverty via sleep disturbances could be ameliorated by policy changes that focus on supporting healthy sleep for families living in poverty. First, the authors suggest implementing policies that connect low-income families with resources (e.g., programs, interventions) that have been shown by science to help promote healthy sleep among infants in children. This includes making sure that families are not only able to access these resources, but that resources are provided at a cost that is feasible (or, ideally, covered by insurance).

The authors also detail how policies that offer low-income families with stable and affordable housing, healthcare, and improved nutrition can further reduce disparities. Household stressors known to predict poorer sleep can be reduced by connecting parents to affordable housing near their places of work and the resources to reliably feed their children. Third, the authors suggest that alterations to policies surrounding childcare and school could support healthier sleep. Policies that require  daily naps at school and that limit the amount of time children should spend on homework every night may alleviate some of the deleterious effects of poverty on sleep.

While alarming, the impacts of poverty on early life sleep and later health outcomes can be addressed. By incorporating solutions that are supported by science, and enacting policy that best supports the overall physical and mental health of family units, we can begin to close the gap on poverty-related health disparities.

The authors credited the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development for supporting their research.