Cortisol, the end product of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, plays an important role in modulating sleep. Yet, studies investigating the association between diurnal cortisol rhythm and sleep patterns in young children are scarce. We tested the hypothesis that the diurnal cortisol rhythm is associated with shorter sleep duration and more sleep problems across early childhood.Methods
This study was embedded in Generation R, a population-based cohort from fetal life onward. Parents collected saliva samples from their infant at five moments during day 1. In 322 infants aged 12 to 20 months, we determined the diurnal cortisol rhythm by calculating the area under the curve (AUC), the cortisol awakening response (CAR), and the diurnal slope. Sleep duration and sleep behavior were repeatedly assessed across ages of 14 months to 5 years. Generalized estimating equation models were used to assess related cortisol measures to sleep duration and sleep behavior.Results
The diurnal cortisol slope and the CAR, but not the AUC, were associated with sleep duration across childhood. Children with flatter slopes and children with a more positive CAR were more likely to have shorter nighttime sleep duration (β per nmol/L/h slope = −0.12, 95% confidence interval = −0.19 to −0.05, p = .001; β per nmol/L CAR = −0.01, 95% confidence interval = −0.02 to 0.00, p = .04). Cortisol measures did not predict sleep problems.Conclusions
The present study suggests that a flatter diurnal cortisol slope and a more marked morning rise, which can indicate stress (or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal dysregulation), have a long-term association with sleep regulation.