Sleep is meant to be restorative. But as any new parent knows, it is often the first child development issue to keep mom and dad up at night.
Sonia Rubens, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Child and Adolescent Resilience Lab (CARe) at the University of New Orleans, says that sleep issues in children can continue to have ramifications for child development long after the early years when parents find themselves stressing over naps and nighttime wakefulness.
Rubens’ research draws connections between children’s sleep patterns and day-to-day stress management while delving further into the relationship between sleep deprivation, trauma and childhood behavioral issues.
“Physiologically and psychologically, we all need sleep,” Rubens said. “Sleep plays a restorative quality on our bodies and our psychological and physiological well-being. If we don’t sleep or if our sleep is significantly disrupted, it’s going to make it really hard for us to cope with the day-to-day stressors.”
Rubens’ lab is studying kids who are at risk for being exposed to a lot of day-to-day stressors, chronic stress, chronic trauma in an effort to learn how those experiences are impacting their sleep and, in turn, how their sleep patterns may affect their future functioning.
“It’s likely that they may have started off with some trauma that then affected their sleep,” Rubens said. “But we also know that, especially in teenagers, if they’re not sleeping, they may be getting themselves in trouble, increasing their risk of exposure to things in their neighborhood that might be dangerous. And so you can start to see a reciprocal relationship there.”
Working with Rubens is a team of four graduate students and six undergraduates. They gather regularly on the second floor of the Geology and Psychology Building to discuss and plan data collection for two ongoing studies—one that is drawing on the experiences of adolescents who are on probation in the juvenile justice system in Jefferson Parish and another that is examining sleep in students enrolled at an alternative high school in Orleans Parish.
Preliminary evidence in the Orleans Parish study indicates that the participants tend to have tremendous sleep problems, Rubens said, and these problems appear to be related to a host of mental and behavioral problems.
These sleep studies, she said, can be a foot in the door for delivering needed treatment for other kinds of disorders, including mental health issues.
“The ultimate hope is that we can use sleep as a mechanism for intervention,” Rubens said. “There’s a stigma about going to get help for mental health. But everybody can relate to a bad night of sleep and more people are willing to talk about a bad night of sleep.”
Rubens said she became interested in the role of sleep in psychological functioning while working a research assistant prior to attending graduate school. She said she was working on an intervention for men who had been victims of community violence and, in the process of interviewing them, noticed that many of them on their own shared story after story about how they were suffering to cope due in part to chronic sleep problems following their victimization.
Rubens said that while psychiatrists often prescribe medication to help patients sleep better, there are many evidence-based options that don’t come from a pill bottle.
“We know that there are a lot of very effective behavioral interventions for sleep for both children and adults … to address things like insomnia and circadian rhythm disruptions,” she said. “There’s a lot we can do from a behavioral standpoint without medication to get people a good night’s sleep.”
Rubens, who holds a master’s and a doctorate in clinical child psychology from the University of Kansas, also is part of the Pediatric Sleep Council. The council manages babysleep.com, a website for parents seeking professional advice relating to their children’s sleep. As a national sleep expert, Rubens’ advice is chronicled in a series of videos that answers many of parents’ common questions such how much sleep should a baby be getting and whether it is damaging for babies to cry themselves to sleep.
For more information about the Child and Adolescent Resilience Lab (CARe) and its work, visit labs.uno.edu/care/.