The coronavirus crisis is having a significant impact on children’s sleep, with anxiety and lack of routine causing serious disruption, experts and charities have warned.
The Millpond sleep clinic, in London, says there has been a 30% rise in sleep inquiries from parents about children aged five to 13 compared with the same period in 2018-19. A common issue is that children are going to bed later and sleeping in more.
“At the moment we are very busy,” the clinic’s founder Mandy Gurney said. “We have definitely seen a spike in six- to eight-year-old children with anxiety impacting their sleep. And for younger ones who are not seeing other babies in parenting groups – I think it will be hard when they start to go out more”.
She added: “Parents are also finding it hard to keep older children’s or teenagers sleep’ on track, as the temptation to lie in is very strong when there is no school to get up for.”
A survey of 2,700 people in April gave the early warning sign about the long-term negative impact coronavirus is having on children’s sleep.
It supports a newly published paper from the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry that suggests the potential for sleep problems to emerge or worsen during and following the pandemic is high.
The survey found that 70% of children under 16 are going to bed later – but are also waking later (57%). It found children were becoming more heavily reliant on technology with nearly three quarters (74%) of parents reporting that their children are using electronic devices more during the coronavirus lockdown.
In Lincolnshire, a sleep service started by the Sleep Charity saw 90 people in March 2020, with 169 on the waiting list.
“We are definitely very busy and seeing an awful lot of children with a late sleep phase, so they are finding it hard to go to sleep at a normal time and not falling asleep until late,” said Lisa Artis, the deputy chief executive of the Sleep Charity. “It’s triggered by not having regulated routine but also anxiety.”
She added that parents were finding it hard too, because they have little respite and children are not able to exercise as they normally would. “We have had some sad cases where families found themselves separating because of the pressure, so deciding to live separately for a period of time because of the general pressure with sleep being part of it.”
In May, researchers from King’s College London conducted a survey of 2,254 people to ascertain how the virus outbreak and lockdown has impacted their sleep. Almost half of 16- to 24-year-olds said they were sleeping fewer hours than they had been prior to lockdown. In comparison, a third of those aged 35 and older said the same.
“Coronavirus has had a significant impact on sleep,” said Dr Michael Farquhar, a consultant in paediatric sleep medicine at Evelina London at Guys and St Thomas’ NHS trust. “Teenagers are often trying to be forced into a sleep pattern that is not natural for their biological pattern. They may want to get up later and society and school forces them into a pattern of getting up earlier but lockdown lets that sleep pattern drift.”
“One of the things we see, in particular around the summer holiday, [is] teenagers getting into sleep patterns then where they go to bed later and wake up later. Then when they go back to school in September it is a shock to the system. We are going to see an exaggerated version of that during the pandemic, so we have been saying early on in lockdown it is best to try and stick to a routine and structure and follow normal rhythms.”
The Evelina London hospital has released some tips on sleep, advising exercise during the day and getting outside. They also said to make sure curtains are closed and lights dim at night, as well as introducing a calming bedtime routine.