Kids and teens get a bad press these days. We constantly criticise their lack of manners, poor grades and terrible diet that leads many of them to become obese. But what if it’s the parents’ fault? And what if that’s because we are missing the real reason for their difficulties – a profound lack of sleep.
Scientists in the UK believe that we are in the midst of an unspoken public health crisis due to escalating levels of sleep deprivation.
Almost 60 per cent of UK families sleep badly, with research showing that sleep deprivation causes many relationship problems, a three-fold increase in poor performance due to lack of concentration and focus, considerably more health problems due to poor immune system functioning and obesity, and an increased likelihood of mental health difficulties including depression and anxiety.
Research shows that, of accidents leading to death or serious injury, one in five is caused by a sleep-deprived driver. Their performance is similar to a drunk driver. Interestingly, it’s been found that on the Monday after the clocks go forward and we lose an hour’s sleep, there’s a 17 per cent increase in car accidents.
This crisis is harming our children and young people, with two million suffering from sleep disorders in the UK. In young children – 65 per cent of whom are significantly sleep-deprived – this can lead to increased hyper-activity and other behavioural problems, as well as damaging their physical and mental development. Their problems generally stem from parents who are not teaching them good sleep behaviour, and are letting them stay up too late, sleep wherever they want and wake in the night for snacks and attention.
In America it’s estimated that up to 85 per cent of teens are chronically sleep-deprived, which, among other things, increases levels of depression and self-harm, and leads to poor concentration, focus and memory, as well as reduced grades.
Teenagers need at least nine hours’ sleep a night, but many struggle to get six hours. Teens blame work pressures and anxiety for keeping them awake, as well as their use of computers and mobiles late into the night.
Not only are they losing sleep time and having their sleep broken while online, but they are also struggling to fall asleep because the light that comes from screens delays the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, which is released in response to darkness.
Research also highlights the fact that teens show different circadian rhythms to young children and adults, and pilot studies have shown that shifting the school day forward by one hour – giving teens a chance to wake properly in line with their body clocks – can lead to reduced absenteeism, better performance in the classroom and improved school examination grades.
Poor sleep leaves kids unable to concentrate and learn, angry and impulsive and relying on high-sugar and high-fat foods to boost flagging energy levels.
This week Bedtime Live will take a comprehensive look at this unacknowledged public health crisis and ask what can be done. From helping parents get their little ones to bed, to taking over University Academy in Liverpool (our sleep school), to showing teens how their lifestyles can be devastating to their sleep, we’ll be showing how getting good rest can help improve childrens’ mood, performance and strength.
We’ll also be meeting our crash-test mummies and daddies to see how the effects of sleep deprivation on parents can be deadly.
Tanya Byron is a broadcaster, psychologist and government adviser on children.
Zoe, 34, from Staplehurst, Kent
Josh and I have a nightly battle because he will not go to sleep on his own. He sobs, gets angry, says he doesn’t love me and throws things down the stairs. So I always end up staying with him until he falls asleep, usually by about 9 or 9.30. After a couple of hours he wakes up and gets into my bed.
I know I’ve made a rod for my own back. I used to let Josh fall asleep on the breast until he was two and a half so he never learnt to fall asleep by himself. Josh’s dad and I separated when he was nearly one and I got comfort from having him in bed to give me a cuddle and support. From a worry point of view, too, I liked him near me.
I thought he’d grow out of it when he started school; in fact the older he’s got the harder it’s got. I’ve tried lots of things, from controlled crying to slowly separating night by night and a reward chart with stars. And I established a strict bath and bedtime routine when he was little. The problem is there’s almost too much advice. After day five or six you think, “I’m not getting anywhere, I’m exhausted, let’s just take the easy option.”
It’s emotionally exhausting gearing up for this battle every night. Fortunately, I work part-time from home [for an online clothing company]. And being that angry must take its toll on Josh – although during the day he’s happy and outgoing and he’s never been clingy.
It’s impossible to get babysitters, apart from my mum, who also lets Josh sleep with her. I had a boyfriend for just over two years, but at night we’d have this massive game of musical beds – it was hellish. I thought I was strong-willed, but it’s my son who dictates how we do things.
Zoe's mum, Caroline, a nurse from Hastings
Zoe is the eldest of five so I probably am firmer with Josh than she is. When he was younger I told her that if she left him to cry he would wear himself out very quickly. I think that might have worked, but Josh’s dad wasn’t happy leaving him to cry.
I babysit Josh once a month. I’ve tried to get him to sleep by himself, and I’m not as easily persuaded as Zoe, but even I give in, and he ends up in my bed. And it is a case of giving in, and he’s won. But he works himself into such a stressed-out state I worry he might be sick – it’s awful.
I used to tell Zoe that once Josh started nursery he’d be fine, because it would wear him out; as a toddler Zoe came in my bed until she was three. By the time children start school you can usually reason with them, but nothing works with Josh.
I worry about Zoe, because it’s taking quite a toll on her. It’s hard when you talk to other mothers who’ve never had problems. I keep telling her she’s not a failure. She needs to have a life. She’s so anxious when she goes out; she’ll keep phoning to ask if he’s asleep.
THE EXPERT'S ANSWER
Sleep specialist Emma Janes
Dealing with sleep issues is challenging for parents who are already sleep-deprived – it is, after all, a form of torture! So I would make sure I reassured Zoe at every step of the way. I work in partnership with families to develop strategies using a cognitive behavioural therapy approach to enable parents to change a child’s sleep habit, in a way that will fit in with their lives, while offering them support along the way.
Since Josh is used to getting up several times a night and sleeping with Mum, rather than his own bed, we would need to address this in a way he will respond to positively. We would give mum various tools to enable her to teach Josh to go to sleep in his own bed and give her the techniques to help him stay there for the whole night.
To complement the behavioural element we will be working on the evening routine to help to teach Josh to sleep and understand the difference between day and night.
Here’s the type of evening routine we’d be working towards:
7pm: TV off, main lights off, lamps on, curtains closed.
Snack: banana, warm milk, yogurt, oatmeal with warm milk, wholemeal toast with peanut butter.
Then: Mum to have one-on-one play time with Josh: drawing, building, Lego etc.
7.45pm: Brush teeth, PJs on, toilet etc
7.50pm: Two stories in bed with Josh
8pm: Kiss goodnight, “See you in the morning”.
The importance is continuity and routine – and I’m going to be with Zoe every step of the way.
Emma Janes will be advising Zoe over the next five weeks on Bedtime Live.
Bedtime Live starts tonight at 8:00pm on Channel 4