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The Role of Sleep and Social Information Processing in Child Neglect

Sandy Azar headshot

PI: Sandy Azar

NIH R21HD082555
Administered in: College of the Liberal Arts

Abstract:

The goal of this project is to examine the role of maternal sleep in the etiology of child neglect, the most common form of maltreatment. Sleep difficulties disrupt vigilance, attention, affective processing, and decision making, which may account for neglectful parents’ pervasive inattentiveness to children’s basic needs, inability to identify and respond appropriately to children’s immature capacities, poor planning and monitoring, and failures to flexibly adapt to child cues and environmental risks. The project is examining sleep in neglectful and non-neglectful mothers of preschoolers and exploring links to the parenting risks observed in neglect, including lower responsiveness and flexibility, poor parent-child synchrony, and maladaptive household qualities (e.g., chaos, lack of routines, poor supervision). Links to child outcomes will also be explored.

This project extends validation of a social information processing (SIP) model of neglect’s etiology by examining an additional potential antecedent to neglect. In prior work, we established that neglectful mothers show heightened SIP  deficits (e.g., poor executive functioning, attributional biases) and that these cognitive factors are associated with maladaptive caregiving and problematic home environments. The associations with neglect held after controlling for factors seen as causal to neglect including maternal IQ, life stress, low resources, depression, and maltreatment history. This new work will expand on these findings by examining links between maternal and child sleep, SIP, neglect, and the child outcomes seen in neglect. Sleep is strongly linked to cognition, but has not been studied in neglect. Sleep difficulties negatively impact cognition and have been cited as contributing to errors in human judgment in everything from car accidents to nuclear power plant mishaps. Using an urban, disadvantaged and diverse sample of neglectful and non-neglectful mothers of preschoolers, this study examines: 1) whether maternal sleep difficulties are linked to maladaptive parenting, disorganized, unpredictable home environments, and risk for child neglect; 2) whether match of mother-child sleep patterns is linked to synchrony and dyssynchrony in mother-child interactions, problematic home environments and neglect; and 3) test a model wherein mothers’ sleep difficulties and poor match of mother-child sleep patterns lead to SIP deficits (and/or exacerbate their consequences) and increase maladaptive caregiving, problematic home environments, and risk for neglect. This study also explores proximal environmental factors (e.g., light, temperature, screen time) that may regulate sleep and could be targeted in interventions.

Exposure to neglect leads to many negative outcomes in children and is costly, with chronic neglect using nine times the social service dollars of other forms of maltreatment. Neglect rates have remained stable over the last two decades, and few valid etiological models of neglect exist to inform interventions. This study elaborates on a model that has already shown promise in explaining neglect. Moreover, as sleep been shown to be amenable to interventions, findings would inform much needed interventions.

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