DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.13942 ISSN: 0021-9630

Associations among early life adversity, sleep disturbances, and depressive symptoms in adolescent females and males: a longitudinal investigation

Jessica P. Uy, Ian H. Gotlib
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Pediatrics, Perinatology and Child Health


Exposure to adversity early in life (ELA) has been associated with elevated risk for depression during adolescence, particularly for females; the mechanisms underlying this association, however, are poorly understood. One potential mechanism linking ELA and sex differences in depressive symptoms is sleep disturbances, which increase during adolescence and are more common in females. Here, we examined whether sleep disturbances mediate the association between ELA and increases in depressive symptoms during adolescence and whether this mediation differs by sex.


224 (N = 132 females) youth were recruited at age 9–13 years and assessed every 2 years across three timepoints. At the first timepoint, we conducted extensive interviews about stressful events participants experienced; participants provided subjective severity ratings of events and we objectively scored the severity of each event. Self‐reported sleep disturbances and depressive symptoms were assessed at all timepoints. We conducted linear mixed models to estimate both initial levels and changes in sleep disturbances and depressive symptoms, and moderated mediation analyses to test whether initial levels and/or changes in sleep disturbances mediated the association of ELA (objective and subjective) with increases in depressive symptoms across adolescence and whether the mediations differed by sex.


While higher initial levels and increases in sleep problems were uniquely associated with increases in depressive symptoms for males and females, they were related to ELA differently by sex. For females, greater ELA (both objectively and subjectively rated) was associated with higher initial levels of sleep problems, which in turn were associated with increases in depressive symptoms from early to late adolescence. In contrast, for males, ELA exposure was not associated with either initial levels of, or increases in, sleep problems.


These findings highlight the role of sleep disturbances during the transition to adolescence in mediating sex differences in the effects of ELA on depressive symptoms.

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