Are loving middle-class parents to blame for childhood insomnia?

Are loving middle-class parents to blame for an epidemic of childhood insomnia?

  • Nine out of ten teachers report having students who are too tired to study 
  • A quarter of teachers said they had to allow pupils have a quick nap in class
  • Almost 10,000 under 14s needed specialist sleep treatment centres in 2017
  • Ten year old children should receive on average 11 hours sleep per night  

Louise Hume has long stopped inviting friends over for dinner or going out in the evenings. It’s not that she’s anti-social: the problem is that her nights are focused on one mission – getting her young daughter to sleep – and have been for the past seven years.

When we meet in their South London home it is 7.30pm, and the run-up to bedtime for seven-year-old Zoe, who is wearing her favourite cloud-print pyjamas as Louise reads Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven to her.

It’s a scene that is doubtless played out in homes across the country at around this time of day.

Nine out of ten teachers report having students who are too tired to study while in class

But, until very recently, evenings were never this relaxed in the Hume household. Almost every night, despite a strict ‘lights out’ rule at 8.30pm, Zoe tended to bounce out of bed every ten to 15 minutes until she finally drifted off, sometimes as late as midnight.

Her sleep problems have been lifelong. ‘Even as a baby, Zoe never settled well, and any noise would stir her,’ says Louise, 36, a photographer.

‘As soon as she could talk, she’d ask why she had to go to sleep. When she could hear adult conversation downstairs, she’d come and tell us how lonely she was lying in her bedroom all by herself.

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‘She wasn’t being naughty, and she certainly wasn’t having any screen time – she didn’t really watch TV, or have her own computer or smartphone.

‘Zoe told me she would just lie there wide awake, not feeling remotely sleepy.’

However, while Zoe was a livewire at night, mornings were a different story. ‘Getting her out of bed was really hard. She was very reluctant to wake up, and although her school work didn’t seem to suffer, teachers suggested she take an afternoon nap, which I found mortifying. Of course, by evening, she was filled with energy and the whole cycle would start again.’

And it seems Louise – and Zoe – are far from alone in their plight. Indeed, theirs is just one example of the spiralling number of British youngsters suffering from profound sleep problems.

Intriguingly, it could all be down to their over-indulgent parents…

Admissions to sleep clinics are soaring

A recent survey by The Sleep Council, which focuses on raising awareness of the link between sleep, health and wellbeing, found that nine out of ten teachers report having pupils so tired they are unable to pay attention in class.

A quarter have had to resort to letting children nap in a corner of the classroom.

Admissions of under-16s to specialist sleep clinics are up by 44 per cent in the last five years, to 9,429 in 2017, and attendances for under-14s have tripled in the last ten years.

Private clinic The Sleep School recently surveyed British children between three and 17 and found they were, on average, getting 25 per cent less sleep than recommended for their age.

Admissions of under-16s to specialist sleep clinics are up by 44 per cent in the last five years, to 9,429 in 2017, and attendances for under-14s have tripled in the last ten years

Ten-year-olds should get between nine and 11 hours a night, according to The Sleep School clinical director Dr Guy Meadows, while 15-year-olds should try to get about nine hours and 18-year-olds between eight and nine hours. The effects of insomnia on young minds and bodies are significant.

Dr Anna Weighall, a cognitive development psychologist at the University of Leeds, specialising in children’s sleep, says: ‘Good quality sleep is essential for a child’s development. A lack of sleep can have a very real impact on their day- to-day lives, as well as having long-term health implications.’

Mandy Gurney, founder of the Millpond Sleep Clinic for children in West London, elaborates: ‘Deep sleep is when we clear out old memories and allow space for new ones to come in and also when we store memories associated with classroom-type learning.’

Vicki Dawson, founder of the award-winning Children’s Sleep Charity, who has seen parents bring children to her Doncaster clinic who haven’t slept for 36 hours says: ‘Without enough sleep, first the immune system is compromised.

‘This leads to colds and bugs and days lost in education. Secondly, the link between lack of sleep and obesity is now proven – less sleep means less energy to exercise and studies also suggest that insomnia disrupts the hormones involved in regulating hunger, which in turn leads to people overeating.

‘Growth hormone is released when we sleep, so that’s another area that can be impacted, and numerous studies have linked tiredness with clumsiness and being more accident-prone.’

It’s not just screen time that’s to blame  

Given recent publicity about the damaging effect of screen time on developing brains, it would be easy to point the finger at late nights spent glued to smartphones, laptops and social media.

But while some sleep difficulties may start this way, child insomnia isn’t simply due to a refusal to log off: Dawson, rather surprisingly, claims that in many of the cases she sees, well-meaning middle-class parents are to blame.

She says: ‘Children, particularly those who are primary school age, can have very full schedules.

‘There can be before and after school activities and clubs, along with homework. And parents often feel they want to spend quality time engaging with their children, too, playing or reading.

‘We’ve had parents who are going to bed with their child and reading school textbooks, just to try to fit everything in. For many children, it’s fine but in leaving no time to wind down in the evening will cause problems for some.

‘To make matters worse, when children aren’t sleeping some parents try to “wear them out” before bed by doing very physical things, which can, in some children, be highly stimulating.’

Dawson’s clinic advocates a simple approach: parents are encouraged to introduce a ‘calm hour’ before bed.

‘We look at when the child is falling asleep, and work backward,’ she explains. ‘So, if when they start treatment, that’s midnight, then the calm hour starts at 11pm. Consistency is the key, and getting up time has to stay the same.’

Lights in the house must be dimmed as melatonin, the hormone that triggers sleepiness, is released by the body in response to darkness, and televisions, computers, phones, and screens switched off.

Calming activities are advised during the hour, such as colouring, model-making, Lego, jigsaws or reading a book. Vigorous activity is out.

Dawson says: ‘Many families find it helpful to make a “sleepy box” that contains activities they know their child enjoys, which they can get out during the calm hour.

‘We monitor families and when, after a few days or even weeks, the child is falling asleep after that hour and not getting up again, we move the whole cycle back by 15 minutes, and continue this process until they’re getting the recommended hours every night.’

How to recalibrate your family life

The Sleep School has helped the Lunn family: Emily, 41, her partner Greg, 55, and their sons Billy, ten, and Jamie, seven, from Rotherham. Emily says: ‘Billy had always slept well but when he got to about seven he started being wide awake at 9pm, then 10pm, then it was 11pm and finally it was midnight before he’d drop off. Looking back, we used to come home from school at 3.30pm and I’d cook tea while tidying up and then we were straight out to swimming lessons, trampolining, diving, football and more.

‘Then it was back to do homework, followed by a quick bath, and into bed. Greg was out at work so back just in time for a quick good night.

‘It was a very packed schedule but my thinking was I that was very invested in the children and giving them every opportunity.’

The Lunns’ marriage began creaking under the strain of Billy’s insomnia – and Emily started sleeping in a separate bedroom to Greg so Billy wouldn’t disturb them both when he appeared.

Emily thought Billy might have ADHD, but his school suggested she try The Children’s Sleep Charity – and the family went about recalibrating their whole approach to family life.

Emily says: ‘Now the boys don’t do anything like the amount of organised activities they used to. They still do the odd club but they’ll now play out with friends, or we’ll go out for a dog walk after tea.

‘Greg comes home earlier to spend more quality time with us too. Phones go off and we’ve made the pace of home life much, much slower. So instead of the rush to get to bed after a hectic schedule there’s a slow wind down by the whole family.

‘Billy sleeps much better and his mood is hugely improved.’

Louise Hume sought help from the Millpond Sleep Clinic – and discovered she was part of her daughter’s problem.

Louise says: ‘I wanted to spend as much one-to-one time as possible with Zoe after work every day. We had dinner together and I had a lengthy and elaborate bedtime routine that involved taking a long bath with her, playing make-believe games, then at least half an hour reading in bed together and then leaving her at 8.30, often still reading to herself in bed.

‘I had no idea that all the quality time was over-stimulating her, instead of putting her in a calm state of mind and ready for sleep.’

Zoe’s bedtime routine has been brought back gradually so she’s now, most nights, fast asleep by 9pm. Louise says: ‘I still play with her, but I’ve cut bath and reading routine from almost two hours to less than 45 minutes. She’s already got loads more energy and enthusiasm. It’s worked wonders.’

Dawson says: ‘It’s understandable that parents who haven’t seen their children all day want to spend time with them, or pack in a range of exciting activities. But often what children need is just to be given calm space to switch off and wind down at their own pace.

‘The truth is, in most cases, the causes of child sleep problems are right under parents’ noses.

‘But that doesn’t mean these problems are easy to fix. It takes commitment but it can be done.’

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