Modern life really is more toxic than ever for children who, according to research released this week, are simply not getting enough sleep. The study by the University of Leeds appears to highlight that a significant number of children are sleeping for considerably less than the ten hours a night recommended by the NHS.
A staggering 36 per cent of primary school children get eight hours a night or less, and 15 per cent have seven hours a night or less. Just as a reminder, this is what children really need: 10 to 13 hours for pre-school infants, 9 to 11 hours for 6- to 13-year-olds and 8 to 10 hours for teenagers. The study was led by Dr Anna Weighall, a developmental cognitive psychologist with expertise in sleep research, who presented her research at the British Sleep Society Conference in Brighton this month.
The findings are not earth-shattering – in fact they confirm what any sensible parent knows: ‘Our results show that children who experience inadequate sleep are more likely to have problems paying attention in class, forgetting things and keeping up with school work, and may then end up missing school because they feel unwell.’
Children are an absolute nightmare when they are tired. Simple everyday tasks, which are harder anyway for little people whose motor skills and emotional resilience are still a work in progress, take on Herculean proportions. The chances are that when your child is tired, just putting on their school uniform or cleaning their teeth can’t be accomplished without an epic meltdown.
It’s why, as a mother of five children, I am almost obsessive about getting them to bed on time. My mornings have to be run with military precision, with five of them to be fed, dressed, teeth brushed, hair tied back neatly, snack boxes put into bags, homework folders signed and various sets of PE, swimming and ballet kits, musical instruments and accompanying music bags all needing to be in school by 8.20 sharp! If one of the children is tired, it throws the morning routine into chaos, and means that they arrive at school already frazzled and exhausted, and not in the best frame of mind to be doing what they should be doing, namely learning.
We tend to forget how exhausting a school day is, especially for young children who ideally ought to be challenged to do their best both inside and outside of the classroom. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or in this case a development cognitive psychologist, to realise that a child who is sleep-deprived is not going to be in any fit state to take on board new information, and will quickly fall into a vicious circle of underachievement and resentment. It’s been well established for a number of years that lack of sleep suppresses the immune system, making one more prone to both minor and major ailments.
It’s not a surprise, either, to discover that the two major culprits for sleep deprivation in children are lack of routine and technology. And I might add – a lack of parental attention and authority. Children as young as six have tablets and smartphones in their bedroom. It gets worse as they get older and by 11 tech is trumping sleep. According to the study, those with tech in their rooms lose up to an hour of sleep, compared with those whose parents sensibly keep their child’s bedroom a tech-free zone.
This raises the question: what on earth are parents thinking of letting a child as young as six have a tablet or smartphone in the bedroom? Should it not be glaringly obvious that these devices are both addictive and stimulating, and that if used at all it should be under strict supervision and with limits on screen time? You’d have to be on another planet not to realise that letting little Johnny go to bed with any kind of screen on, be it electronic or televisual, is not conducive to dropping off peacefully.
Parents, it seems from the research, are incapable of establishing a routine. Even if they know how much sleep children ought to be getting, they are not making it a priority.
What the study points to is a collapse in parenting.
Why are children being sent to bed with tech? Are the parents too lazy or too tired to establish a proper bedtime routine? The truth is that if both parents (presuming there are two) are working long hours, having to pick up their children in the early evening either from daycare or wraparound care, the chances are that by the time bedtime comes around, they are too tired themselves to do anything other than send their kids to bed with some tech to act as an electronic storyteller.
Modern life means that many of us are no longer living close to our own parents who would be horrified at this lack of routine if they were to witness it, and it may also be the case that not having had a good bedtime routine instilled into them as children, some parents are simply passing on the habits they’ve learned.
Another insidious trend in parenting is to conflate discipline with harsh authoritarianism. Parents are afraid to put their foot down and enforce strict bedtimes, instead leaving their children to ‘choose for themselves’ to avoid confrontation. Not only does the child end up over-tired, but also insanely demanding, spoiled, unable to face the real world and needing a safe space as soon as they get to higher education.
Child development experts are unanimous on the importance of bedtime rituals for children from the start. I have always ensured, right from the off, that bedtime is preceded by bath and story, followed by settling them down. It allows them to wind down and sets up the expectation of what is to happen.
As for tech in the bedroom: unthinkable. My 13-year-old has no interest in social media, but even if she did, the rule is all tech is downstairs and charging overnight. Her very sensible headmistress says that following this rule not only ensures that they are getting the sleep they need, but also avoids bullying and other friendship dramas which are exacerbated when you’ve got a bunch of sleep-deprived and irrational hormonal teenagers messaging each other in the early hours.
I frequently have to do homework, music practice, meal, bath, milk, story and then prayers for five children on my own, as my husband’s work often entails evening meetings. How do I manage? I am at home for a start – working from home part-time, I can pick up my children from school at 3:30 and then have enough time to devote to their needs, including getting them to bed at a reasonable hour, without the need for tech.
There’s a lesson there somewhere. It’s called having a parent at home.