These days, the sun doesn’t rise until almost 7 a.m., and it sets shortly after 5 p.m. I’m awake with my baby for an hour before full sunlight, and my preschooler barely gets home from school for a snack and a small amount of playtime before the light begins to dwindle.
The transition to winter (even here in sunny California) drags my energy down slightly, and my kids feel a bit cooped up and restless. But what about when the change in season causes something more serious? Most of us are familiar with seasonal affective disorder (depression that starts in the fall and lasts through the winter) in adults, but is it also possible for kids to feel glum and even show signs of depression?
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is a subtype of or descriptor for more general mood disorders, like major depression. In the fall and winter, people with the condition experience low energy, moodiness, social withdrawal, and a loss of interest in activities. They start to sleep more, eat more, and crave carbohydrates.
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— Terri Cheney
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Dwindling light and shorter days are thought to be responsible for symptoms of SAD: for these people, limited sunlight in the fall and winter disrupts the circadian clock, which regulates sleeping, eating, and mood patterns. Reduced sunlight and the change in season are also thought to affect serotonin and melatonin — neurochemicals involved in sleep and mood. People who live in northern latitudes (that receive less light in the winter) are at greater risk, and genetics are thought to play a role, as SAD can run in families.
Seasonal Affective Disorder in children
Research on SAD in children is limited, but some studies suggest it exists. For example, a 1995 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry of children ages 9-19 found the overall rate of SAD to be just over three percent (in adults it’s estimated at up to 10 percent). In this study, SAD became more common as kids got older, indicating the disorder takes years to manifest, and the highest frequency was in girls who had gone through puberty. Another study that measured activity levels and wake/sleep routines by having children wear an actigraph (a portable monitor) found that kids with SAD did indeed show signs of having disrupted circadian rhythms.
Of course, seasonal depression wouldn’t be the first explanation if a child seems sad or irritable in the fall and winter; there are plenty of other reasons for emotional dips at this time of year. The transition back to school, less outdoor play because of limited light and colder temperatures, changing sleep patterns, and more can cause little kids to feel off-kilter. And it’s difficult to diagnose a child with any psychiatric issue, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, because most develop over time, and doctors need long histories to make an accurate assessment. Mood disorders like depression are known to occur in young children (although they aren’t as common as with adolescents and adults); depression is estimated to affect two percent of school age kids, and five to eight percent of adolescents. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says that roughly five percent of children and adolescents suffer from depression.
What can you do?
For adults who have been diagnosed with seasonal depression, light therapy (in which a person sits in front of a specially designed light source for a certain amount of time each day) has proven to be effective, as have medications and psychotherapy. Research on light therapy for children with SAD is limited, but other behavioral interventions (all of which can help regulate the body’s clock) could help. For example:
- Make your home as sunlight-rich as possible. Open the shades when your child wakes up in the morning to give her room light
- Have your child sit near a window with plenty of sunlight (for example, have breakfast in a bright spot of the kitchen)
- Go outside with your child early in the day. Early sunlight is thought to help regulate the body’s clock
- Give your child plenty of time to exercise
There is no specific test for SAD (in adults or children), so the best route is to talk to your child’s pediatrician if you suspect any changes in mood, sleep, or eating patterns. You can work together to understand what’s going on and find the best way to help your little one.