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The family way
7:00am Saturday 28th April 2012 in Lifestyle
Up to two thirds of UK children aren't getting enough sleep, according to new research. The experts explain how much sleep kids need, and why it's important that parents make sure they get it.
By Lisa Salmon.
Computers, gaming and technology are such a big part of modern life that it seems they're now affecting children's sleep.
A new survey has found that up to two-thirds of UK children aren't getting enough sleep, and part of the problem is that rather than enjoying a bedtime story, more than half of children aged over six admit they stay up late playing computer games, browsing the internet, texting their friends and watching television.
The survey, by Travelodge, found that 67% of children miss out on a bedtime story, and nearly half don't follow a regular bedtime routine or go to bed at the same time each night.
In fact, the average respondent in the study of more than 2,000 children aged between six and 15 went to bed at 11.20pm.
As a result of sleep deprivation, 79% of children said they find it difficult to concentrate at school, and eight out of 10 reported extreme daytime tiredness, to the extent that more than a quarter admitted to falling asleep in class at least once a week.
Children's sleep specialist Andrea Grace says part of children's sleep problems may stem from them having computers, TVs and electronic games in their bedrooms, as it's hard for parents to police what's going on.
"It's very easy if they're quiet upstairs to think that they're asleep, when actually they're on the computer or watching TV in their room," she says.
"It's so easy to stay up and do something on the internet or play a game - doing these things give children a false energy, making them feel energised and awake even when they're tired."
She says that while going on the computer just before bed may or may not affect children's sleep quality, "it's more that it postpones sleep and keeps children hooked in".
She says sleep deprivation makes people more susceptible to illness and infections, the immune system is affected, and people are more prone to accidents, depression and low mood.
The quality of people's sleep is affected by the hormone melatonin, which is secreted during darkness, she says, so a good night's sleep is easier in a dark room.
"If children fall asleep with a computer on in the background, or near light from some other technology, it will affect the quality of their sleep, even if they fall asleep at a reasonable time."
"Parents need to think about whether their children are sleep deprived," she advises, "and if so, take steps to start a very simple bedtime routine again."
She says such routines are relevant at any age, even for adults, as it's the time when people wind down.
"Adults and children need to have a time when they just prepare themselves for bed and turn everything off.
"As well as helping people unwind, it helps you to feel better - more in control knowing you'll be able to cope with the next day."
Grace stresses that if parents get children of any age into a bedtime routine, it can make the whole family happier - even if the kids resist at first.
"Sometimes it's really worth the battle. If you say everything off at 9pm, or whatever the appropriate time is for the age of your child, if you can weather the storm and give rewards and praise for doing it, they'll feel better and parents will too, as they're in control and they're helping to improve their children's wellbeing."
Grace and the Travelodge report say children normally need between 10-12 hours sleep a night, although it drops slightly in the teenage years. The report found that 74% of parents think seven hours is sufficient sleep for their kids.
However, Professor Colin Espie, director of the University of Glasgow Sleep Centre, insists that there's "no one-size fits all" time period for sleep.
"Parents should know how much sleep their children need, just like they should know how much food they need," he says.
"There are individual differences. Most parents know that even their own kids are different from each other at exactly the same age.
"As parents we expect to figure most things out - and it does take time. Quoting norms at particular ages absolutely isn't helpful."
He agrees that schoolchildren and their parents aren't taking sleep seriously enough.
"Sleep isn't a lifestyle option but, like breathing, is absolutely essential," he stresses.
"Adequate sleep is required for the brain to function at its best. Healthy living needs to take not just diet and exercise but also sleep into account.
"So far sleep has been greatly neglected as a public health issue."
Ask the expert Q: "My two year old son has eczema on his face - could it be caused by something he eats?"
A: Dr George Du Toit, a consultant paediatric allergist at The Portland Hospital, London, says: "Eczema is a complex skin disorder that arises due to genetic environmental interplay and which, in children, often heralds the start of the 'allergic march'.
"In up to 50% of children, eczema is associated with an underlying food allergy, and while the food allergen may not actually cause the eczema, eating it may make the symptoms worse.
"Foods such as tomato, citrus and berries may irritate facial eczema. You can still feed your child these foods, but it's better to serve them cooked, and after the application of a moisturiser to any dry skin or eczema patches on the face, to minimise symptoms.
"Food allergy is most prevalent during the first few years of life and affects between 6-8% of children in the UK. The most common foods children are allergic to are: cow's milk, hen's eggs, peanut, tree nut (e.g. cashew), sesame, soya, wheat and kiwi fruit.
"Many children outgrow their allergies, for example, egg and milk allergy are outgrown in at least 85% of children by the age of five to seven years, whereas peanut, tree nut and sesame allergy tend to continue into adulthood.
"Children of all ages can be tested for allergies (either through a skin test or blood test) but it's important that this is done by a doctor who specialises in allergy to ensure the condition is identified and managed correctly.
"If your child suffers from an allergy, whether it be eczema, asthma, a food allergy, hay fever or one of the many other types of allergy, you're not alone. It's predicted that allergies now affect 40-50% of the population, with the rate increasing fastest among children.
"No one really knows why allergies are increasing. One school of thought is that we lead cleaner, germ-free lives today and our immune systems are therefore under-developed and overreact when exposed to allergens. "It's most likely to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors that act at different times.
"The good news is that allergy management is changing. Healthcare professionals are realising how important it is to provide emotional support alongside symptom treatment, so do speak to your doctor and get the help you need."
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