How pushy middle-class parents are turning their children into sleep-starved zombies

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As a former Deputy Head and Class Teacher I’ve taught kids like this story in The Daily Mail that  have been over scheduled – doing far too many after school activities – one little girl Isobel who was 8 and in my class many years ago springs to mind.

Here’s an interesting article in the Daily Mail around sleep, pushy parents and the new Channel 4 Programme Bedtime Live (that I did a recording for but didn’t make the final programme.)

“As 12-year-old Isabella’s mother reeled off  her daughter’s after-school activities, I tried to disguise the look of horror  on my face.

Every single evening was taken up with one  club or another: violin, ballet, Kumon maths, French, swimming, Girl  Guides…you name it, this girl does it.

But despite all this hot-housing, the little  girl was falling behind at school.

‘She can’t settle to do a task properly  and  her teachers say she isn’t concentrating. I just don’t know what the problem  is,’ the mother wailed.

Research has highlighted that chronic sleep deprivation among teenagers is leading to depression, self-harm and poor performance at school
Research has highlighted that chronic sleep deprivation  among teenagers is leading to depression, self-harm and poor performance at  school

‘She can’t settle to do a task properly and  her teachers say she isn’t concentrating. I just don’t know what the problem  is,’ the mother wailed.

Luckily, I did. The poor child was being  tortured by lack  of sleep. By the time she got back from her clubs and finally finished her  homework, it was midnight, and she was snatching just six hours  sleep.

Sadly, Isabella is far from alone in this. As  a sleep expert who treats children with chronic sleep  problems, in the past few years I have seen a terrifying explosion in the  number of middle-class children whose lives are being wrecked by lack of sleep.  And — I’m sorry to say — it is their parents who are responsible.

Hardworking, ambitious parents who want the  best for their children are unwittingly causing them terrible damage by not  ensuring they get the one thing they desperately need: sleep.

Last week, a new Channel 4 programme, Bedtime  Live, claimed that two million British children are suffering from sleep  deprivation, leading to hyperactivity and other behavioural problems as well as  damaging their physical and mental development. The programme also highlighted  that chronic sleep deprivation among teenagers is leading to depression,  self-harm and poor performance at school.

The programme-makers laid the blame for this  epidemic of sleeplessness squarely at the feet of the nation’s parents, who are  allowing their children to stay up too late, sleep whenever they want and get up  in the night for attention. And they are right.

I am horrified by the unwitting damage that  otherwise loving, caring parents are doing to their offspring.

The most surprising thing about this  phenomenon? That the worst offenders  aren’t feckless parents who feed their  children unhealthy food, or let  them wander the streets on their own in the  evenings while they go to  the pub.

Channel 4 programme, Bedtime Live, claimed that two  million British children are suffering from sleep deprivation

No, they are middle-class parents who lavish  love and affection on their offspring — yet inflict their own sleep-starved  lifestyles on children who should be getting at least eight hours a night until  they are 18 years old.

Working long hours in professional jobs, they  rarely get enough sleep themselves. Ambitious and career-driven, they are so  keen to hot-house their youngsters, they don’t understand that children need  sleep as much as they need extra stimulation.

We let them copy our frenzied lifestyles.  Children are on the go 24/7, never switching off their computers, endlessly  checking their iPhones,  constantly in touch with a world that never sleeps. This is having devastating  effects on their sleep patterns and well-being.

Again, it is middle-class children whose  bedrooms are filled with all the trappings of wealth — from mobile  phones to iPads and games consoles — who find it most difficult to switch  off.

I treated one 14-year-old boy at my London  sleep clinic who was regularly awake until 3am playing on his computer. His  parents were blissfully ignorant and assumed he was sleeping soundly.

The problem only came to light when his  teachers complained that he was hyperactive and couldn’t settle in class. They  believed he was taking drugs.

While middle-class parents  fret endlessly over their children’s exam results, eating habits and unsuitable  boyfriends, they are blindly setting them up for a lifetime of  ill-health by  neglecting something just as vital to their well-being — their sleep

Indeed, teachers often think that  sleep-starved children — who become irritable, argumentative and lack  concentration — are taking illegal substances.

And who can blame them? These children fall  over, get into accidents, they can’t read properly because the words jump around  on the page before their eyes and their writing goes haywire.

More often than not, the cause is  sleeplessness, caused by playing on electronic machines of one kind of another  until the small hours.

Many parents are oblivious to the fact their  children are doing this, while others simply can’t face policing electronics in  the bedroom — and the resulting histrionics. After all, if you are longing to  get the kids in bed and pour yourself a glass of wine after a tough day at work,  the last thing you want is a vicious row.

While children have always read comics or  books under the bedclothes, technological gadgets are infinitely more harmful.  They are far more addictive, meaning ten minutes quickly turns into 20 and then  an hour, and they negatively affect sleep patterns.

Sleep is made up of many different stages,  and REM — or dreaming sleep — is severely compromised by previous exposure to  the light from devices such as iPhones and laptops. Research suggests that we  need to switch off all devices at least 60 minutes before we go to bed in order  to get a refreshing, deep sleep.

So parents who actively encourage their  children to watch TV or play computer games before they go to bed because they  think it will distract them and help them sleep are actually doing the exact  opposite.

Middle-class children are also finding their  sleep compromised by parents who work increasingly long hours. Many of the  clients I deal with are affluent bankers and other City workers, whose children  have every luxury — but barely ever see their parents. And as the recession  bites and parents spend longer out of the house, commuting further or working  extra hours, children are paying the price.

These over-worked parents are trying to  squeeze in family time with their children when the children should really be  asleep — and in doing so they are putting their own needs ahead of their  children’s.

It’s increasingly common for children as  young as six to have supper when Daddy gets home at 8pm. These poor little  children finally get to bed at 10pm — far too late — and their parents wonder  why they’re tired and grouchy all the time.

I know of one set of parents, both lawyers,  who routinely pick their children up from the childminder at 8.30pm. It’s  midnight before the children, aged six and ten, get to bed. The children barely  get five hours sleep. It’s utter madness.

Not surprisingly, when children don’t get  enough sleep, it affects the entire family — and can even cause marital  breakdown.

I recently treated a couple who had not slept  in the same bed since the birth of their youngest child, who is a very poor  sleeper, five years ago.

The child would only sleep, fitfully, in the  mother’s bed, and in order to get a good night’s sleep before work, the husband  had been consigned to a blow-up bed in the living room.

I assumed he was desperate to get back to the  marital bed. Far from it. ‘I’m so used to sleeping by myself I can’t imagine  ever sharing again,’ he said to me.

I don’t think we need to take bets on how  long that marriage will last. Especially given that lack of sleep can lead to  depression and total loss of libido.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, there’s  also overwhelming evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation could be one of the  causes of childhood obesity. Sleep-deprived children crave sugar to keep them  going, and end up eating far too much junk food as a result.

It’s frightening enough that children are  suffering such a devastating physical and mental fall-out from their lack of  sleep. But what worries me most is that parents are setting patterns in place  which will haunt them for ever. Thanks to us, children are learning not to  sleep.

I meet numerous adolescents who tell me  they are poor sleepers — even insomniacs.

That’s total rubbish. The truth is they have  developed habits which are difficult to break, such as taking their mobile  phones to bed with them. And they have convinced themselves they can’t break the  cycle of not being able to fall asleep easily.

We know that in adults, sleep deprivation  leads to a litany of problems, from depression to an increased risk of cancer.

Yet while middle-class parents fret endlessly  over their children’s exam results, eating habits and unsuitable boyfriends,  they are blindly setting them up for a lifetime of ill-health by neglecting  something just as vital to their well-being — their sleep. ”

Chireal Shallow is a psychologist and founder  of Naturally Nurturing Sleep Clinic,

Read my article about => After school activities: how to strike a balance

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