Can lack of sleep damage academic development?

Worrying research published recently has revealed that the academic development of British children is being significantly affected by dangerously low levels of sleep, with many getting as little as seven hours a night despite the NHS recommendation of ten hours.

The study, carried out by the University of Leeds in conjunction with Silentnight, looks into the effect of bedtime routines and the impact on quality of life of 6-11 year olds. Led by Dr Anna Weighall, a developmental cognitive psychologist with expertise in sleep research, this is the first major study to characterise children’s sleep habits in the UK and has been conducted after consultation from more than a thousand parents.

The findings have revealed that 36 per cent of primary school age children get eight hours or less sleep a night and a worrying 15 per cent get seven hours or less. Such low levels of sleep are likely to have a negative impact on a child’s ability to function in the classroom and reach key milestones.

Discussing the research, Dr Anna Weighall explained how the findings were particularly concerning, with the low levels reported likely to impair long term cognitive and academic development in children.

Poor routine could be to blame, with 83 per cent of children reporting being awake by 6:30am on a weekday despite five per cent still being awake at 10pm the night before and 16 per cent still being awake at 9pm.

Dr Anna Weighall said: “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.

“What’s clear from our data is that parents know how much sleep children should be getting but for whatever reason it’s not being made a priority and children just aren’t getting the necessary time in bed. From looking into bedtime and waking patterns we can see that families are consistently going to bed late during the week and on top of this children are regularly having later nights at weekends, disrupting their sleep patterns and contributing to problems during the school week.”

Dr Weighall continued: “We also looked into the amount of sleep parents are getting to get a clear picture of family life and routine and we found that many parents are also getting chronically low levels of sleep.

“Nearly 50 per cent report getting six hours or less a night and an even more concerning 24 per cent get five hours or less. As well as being associated with a whole host of health problems including cardiovascular disease and obesity, these levels amongst parents could be significantly impacting children’s sleep.

“There are clear indications from our research that suggest by addressing their own sleep patterns, parents could dramatically improve their children’s overall wellbeing and academic performance.”

As well as poor routine the research found technology to be a key contributing factor to lack of sleep amongst children, even from the age of six.

The findings show that children who have smartphones or tablets in the bedroom sleep less than those who leave their devices out of the bedroom - losing up to an hour of sleep a night compared to families that keep bedrooms a tech-free zone. This sleep loss applied even to children who kept devices in their room but had them switched off and the trend increased as they got older, with 11-year-olds losing the most sleep because of tech.

Other factors keeping children awake include worries about bullying and worries about homework. One in six parents said their children’s sleep has been affected by bullying, with parents most concerned about the problem saying their child got up to an hour less sleep than children whose parents did not see it as a concern. Nearly a third of parents surveyed who said their child worried about homework and believed worries about homework have a negative effect on their child’s sleep, with children who worry about homework getting nearly an hour’s less sleep than their peers who do not.

For more information on the sleep study and more sleep advice from Dr Nerina Ramlakhan visit

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