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EMF Studies

09 March 2017

Why British Children Aren't Sleeping

Across the world, bedtimes are getting later and average
sleep duration is falling.  
Photo: David Yeo for the Guardian
'I'll go to school on two and a half hours' sleep': why British children aren't sleeping
by Jenny Kleeman, The Guardian, 
4 March 2017

Doctors are reporting a dramatic increase in children with sleep disorders, which affect their physical and mental health. Why? Plus expert tips on a good night’s rest

If Elise Hill is asleep by 10pm, that counts as a success. Her parents have got used to the two-year-old going to bed at 10.30pm, after three and a half hours of trying to get her to sleep. Elise will insist it can’t be bedtime, not yet. She’ll run away, hide, ask to watch TV. She’ll grab the iPad and start playing a game. Some nights, it takes a half-hour battle just to get her pyjamas on.

A bright girl with caramel-coloured hair and an irresistible smile, it’s easy to see how Elise might have taken control of her bedtime. But in the mornings she doesn’t want to get out of bed. Her mother, Jayne, leaves her to sleep as long as she can, before finally getting her up at 8.15am. Elise is then rushed out of the house so Jayne can get her to nursery before she’s late for work.

At their home in South Yorkshire, Jayne and Nick, Elise’s father, are shattered. “I’ve sat in the car park at work, crying,” Jayne says. “You think about it 24/7. You dread bedtime. It just consumes your whole life. One word: sleep.” There is no time left for them as a couple. “We come downstairs, he feeds the cat, I make a cup of tea, we sit on the settee, watch 15 minutes of telly, and then I fall asleep. You feel like you’re a bad parent. Useless, absolutely low and on the verge of depressed.”

Across the world, children are sleeping less. It’s not just young children like Elise who can’t switch off: from toddlers to teens, bedtimes are getting later and average sleep duration is falling. (Everyone’s needs are different, but health professionals recommend that five-year-olds should get around 11 hours a night, 10-year-olds around 10 hours, and 15-year-olds nine hours). The NHS is seeing more serious problems than ever: hospital attendances for children under 14 with sleep disorders have tripled over the past 10 years. Specialist paediatric services are overwhelmed: Sheffield children’s hospital has seen a tenfold increase in referrals over the last decade. A 2011 study based on schoolteachers’ observations found that English students are the most sleep-deprived in Europe.

There are a number of reasons for this, chief among them our increasing dependence on technology, a more child-centred style of parenting, poor diet and the example set by an older generation, who work longer hours, come home later, and constantly check their phones. Addressing the issue won’t just benefit children’s health, the specialists argue: it will save money. At a time when NHS services are extremely stretched, and adolescent mental health services face a funding crisis, Britain’s sleep problem is costing unnecessary millions in prescriptions, GP appointments and specialist care.

Fortunately for Jayne and Nick Hill, there is help available – but only because they happen to live in the right postcode. NHS Doncaster has funded the Children’s Sleep Charity to provide a clinic, the only free specialist service in the country that supports families of children of all ages, regardless of whether they have a disability. Parents can refer themselves and get an appointment within weeks; it can take four months to get a referral to a paediatrician. The charity runs clinics several times a month in locations around Doncaster.

Founder Vicki Dawson survived five years as a sleep-deprived mother. “When you become a parent, you expect a certain level of sleep deprivation – babies don’t sleep. But when that continues over a number of years, it really starts to take its toll. I experienced memory loss, it was hard to concentrate at work, even driving was difficult and dangerous. I asked for help from my GP, and nobody was able to offer me any advice other than to recommend books. When you’re sleep-deprived and you’re working, the last thing you’re capable of is reading a book.”

A former deputy headteacher, Dawson last year gave up her day job to run the charity full‑time. She gets up to 200 emails a day. “We can’t meet the demand. We have parents telephoning from across the UK, and that feels like a huge responsibility because there’s nowhere else.” The charity can fund one-to-one support for local families; everyone else has to read its leaflets online.


The waiting area at Wheatley children’s centre is filled with mothers with grey faces and hollow eyes. Many of them have spent vast amounts of time and money trying to get their children to sleep. They have tried books, online parents’ forums, white noise, scented oils, vibrating teddies, light shows that project on to the bedroom ceiling. Some have put furniture up for sale to try to meet the cost of private help.

Jayne Hill has an appointment with sleep practitioner Claire Earley, who asks her about Elise’s nightly routine. She explains that Elise has never been a child to go to sleep at seven, but they are aiming for her to be in bed by 8.30pm. Their work schedules mean the family doesn’t have dinner at the same time every day. Elise stays up so they can all sit at the table together. Then she plays on the iPad.

“Is the TV on at this point?” Earley asks.

Jayne says yes.

“What time would you say that was?”

“Probably about 8.30pm.”

“Any screen will keep her awake,” Earley says. “We do ask that parents switch it all off an hour before bedtime to give the brain time to relax.”

It’s well established that technology tells our brains not to go to bed. The blue light emitted from tablets, smartphones, computers and LED TVs interferes with the production of melatonin, the hormone naturally released as the sun goes down that makes us feel sleepy. The blue light filters now available on many devices address only part of the problem: TV on demand, addictive games and fear of missing out on social media make it harder than ever to switch off. Even when we do, our brains are still in overdrive; technology that didn’t exist 10 years ago has taken over our children’s lives in completely unforeseen ways.

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