Tablets, phones and games consoles are playing havoc with our children’s sleep patterns, a university expert has warned.
University of Sunderland sleep expert Dr Paul Innerd issued the warning as new data revealed sleeping disorders in children are becoming increasingly common.
Insomnia in young people has been linked to widespread use of technology and Dr Innerd warns we are grossly underestimating the long-term health implications of disturbed childhood sleeping.
He said: “The way we sleep reflects a lot about our habits as a society and about what those habits are doing to our health. Insomnia in children, or having difficulty falling asleep has been linked to the widespread use of mobile technology, smartphones, tablets and electronic entertainment. Sleep apnoea is typically seen in youngsters who are physically inactive, and overweight.
“Sleep is simply part of being human; we cannot function without it. The importance of sleep is best understood if we consider what happens without it. Lack of sleep causes the brain to function much less effectively; our memory, focus and mood suffer. Physically, the body does not restore and recover as it should. This is particularly important for children.
“We have already seen an increase in sleep disorders in adults as a result of unhealthy lifestyles. Now sleep problems in children and young people are becoming worryingly common.”
Data from NHS Digital this week found pre-school children were among those being treated for a host of sleep-related problems such as suffering from insomnia, nightmares and sleepwalking.
The most common complaint was for sleep apnoea, a breathing problem that leads to repeated waking up in the night.
The figures show sleep apnoea accounts for nearly nine in every 10 (87.8%) sleep-related hospital admissions for under-16s in England since 2012-13.
Overall sleep-related disorder admissions in children aged 16 and under increased every year. This was up from 6,520 in 2012-13 to 9,462 last year.
Dr Innerd, a Lecturer in Exercise Physiology and expert in sleeping patterns, said: “Childhood is a period when we are developing physically, psychologically and emotionally. Our childhood shapes who we are in a myriad of ways, specifically our health.
“This is important for two reasons. Firstly, many behaviours in childhood tend to track into adulthood. So, overweight children tend to grow into overweight adults. Similarly, children who do not sleep well will often continue to do so as adults. Secondly, it is often underestimated how critical our childhood years are to long-term health; unhealthy behaviours carried out as children permanently increase our risk of ill health later in life.
“Short or poor-quality sleep is linked to the development of a range of severe diseases including Type II Diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, dementia, anxiety, and depression. However, the way these diseases develop is slow and progressive, meaning any damage caused by lack of sleep accumulates from the earliest stages of life: we do not notice the ill-effects until symptoms show such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, which we know can lead to serious ill health.”
Experts have described the problem as a hidden public health disaster, putting the rising figures down to a combination of growing obesity levels, excessive use of social media before bedtime and a mental health crisis engulfing young people.
Reasons why sleep is important
A good night’s sleep is incredibly important for your health. Unfortunately, the Western lifestyle is interfering with natural sleep patterns.
People are now sleeping less than they did in the past, and sleep quality has decreased as well.
Poor sleep can have an impact on weight: a short sleep duration is one of the strongest risk factors for obesity. If you’re trying to lose weight, getting quality sleep is absolutely crucial.
Good sleep can improve concentration and productivity: sleep is important for various aspects of brain function. This includes cognition, concentration, productivity and performance.
Good sleep can maximize athletic performance: less sleep duration has also been associated with poor exercise performance and functional limitation.
Poor sleepers have a greater risk of heart disease and stroke: it’s known that sleep quality and duration can have a major effect on many health risk factors.
These are the factors believed to drive chronic diseases, including heart disease.
Sleep improves your immune function: even a small loss of sleep has been shown to impair immune function. If you often get colds, ensuring that you get at least eight hours of sleep per night could be very helpful.