Happy Learners

Happy Learners Banner

Sleep Problems


In our modern world we tend to undervalue sleep. We often ignore or our distracted from the onset of sleep; choosing instead to stay awake for work, leisure or social purposes. However, we are all aware that sleep is essential in order to rest both the body and the mind and maintain our physical and mental well-being. Psychologists have studied the impact on sleep deprivation for many years and have revealed how the functioning of our brains becomes quickly impaired. Not getting the right amount of sleep impairs our ability to think, problem-solve and process information. These are the skills that we need to get on with other people, make decisions, deal with complex tasks and to learn and work. Recent research has also suggested that sleep may be important in the formation of long-term memories and a crucial role in the processing and storage of our learning.

Studies reveal that the majority of school age children are not getting the recommended hours of sleep each night. The table below gives the suggested daily amounts of sleep needed by the average child at each age. Some children may need more than these amounts.

Circadian Rhythm

cortisol and melatonin circadian rhythm

Our sleep patterns are controlled by a body cycle known as the circadian rhythm. This helps us sleep by releasing the hormone melatonin. Small amounts are released in the evening as it becomes dark and this is what makes us feel drowsy. Larger amounts are then released as we sleep. We should go to sleep after it gets dark but with electric lighting we can go on doing things as long as we want. Bright lights in the evening can fool the body into thinking it is still daytime and this delays and reduces the release of melatonin. Studies suggest that just looking at the screen on a mobile phone can fool the body into not releasing melatonin.

Since the invention of the lightbulb in 1879 people sleep on average 3 hours less!

Understanding Sleep

As we sleep we cycle between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep. REM sleep is where we tend to experience dreams and the brain is very active. REM sleep is important for processing experiences from the previous day and could play a part in the formation of long-term episodic memories. There are three phases of non-REM sleep which are important for resting the brain and body, immunity and some memory consolidation. Use of caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and other drugs can reduce the amount of deep NREM and REM sleep leading to sleep problems, night waking, reduced cognitive functioning and a less active immune system.

Getting Enough Sleep



0 18+
1 14
2 13
3 12
4 11.5
5 11
6 11
7 10.5
8 10
9 10
10 10
11 9.5
12 9
13 9
14 9
15 9
16 8.5
17 8.5
18+ 8
Recommended number of hours

An hour before midnight is worth two after

The circadian rhythm for most adults usually produces the most melatonin between 10pm and 5am meaning that this time is the best for sleeping. Going to bed later, even if you lie in later, will mean that some of your sleep is not as deep as it would otherwise be. This lack of quality sleep can lead to fatigue.


Some studies have indicated that the circadian rythm in adolescents may be delayed by up to two hours. This means that teenagers find it difficult to settle to sleep at night and to wake up in the morning compared to younger children and adults. As they often have to be up early for school they are likely to get a lot less sleep than they require. Helping the body relax and avoiding bright lighting and TV, computer and phone screens can help induce the drowsiness required to sleep.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Many individuals with ADHD experience sleep problems and there is evidence that improving sleep can reduce the severity of symptoms. There is also further evidence to suggest that sleep problems themselves can account for ADHD like behaviours and that mis-diagnosis is not uncommon particularly in pre-school children.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Sleep problems are very common in individuals with ASD with some studies reporting prevalence rates of 50-80%. There is also evidence that suggests that problematic behaviour is linked to the severity of sleep disruption. ASD children often like to follow specific bedtime routines and can experience sleep difficulties if not followed. Negotiating and establishing a strict routine may therefore help with preparing for sleep.

Sleep and disease

There is clear evidence linking poor sleep with everything from mental health conditions to cancer and strokes. It is less easy to be certain of whether poor sleep causes diseases or the diseases cause poor sleep. However, poor sleep does appear to suppress the immune system which could increase the likelihood that illnesses may develop. Sleep deprivation leads to reduced cognitive ability which may exacerbate mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

You may also be interested in sleep strategies page.


Five Minute Guide to Sleep

pdf icon

An introduction to the functions of sleep and the importance of a good sleep routine for learning and well-being.

Sleep 1 - What is sleep?

Surviving Teaching

This presentation provides an introduction to the different sleep phases and their function in supporting our health, learning, memory and well-being.

Sleep 2 - Enemies of sleep

Surviving Teaching

Studies suggest that over 70% of children do not get the recommended number of hours sleep per night. This presentation explores some of the factors that contribute towards poor sleep behaviour.


Cassels, T. (2013) ADHD, Sleep Problems & Bed Sharing: Future Considerations The American Journal of Family Therapy 41:13-25, 2013 Available at web.b.ebscohost.com (Accessed 19th February 2014)
Coughlan, S. (2013) Lack of sleep blights pupils' education Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22209818 (Accessed: 10th January 2014).
Goldman, S., McGrew, S., Johnson, P., Richdale, A., Clemons, T. & Malow, B. (2011) Sleep is associated with problem behaviors in children and adolescents with Austism Spectrum Disorders Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 5 (2011) 1223-1229 Available at ac.els-cdn.com (Accessed 19th February 2014)
Henderson, J., Barry, T., Bader, S. & Sytsma Jordan, S. (2011) The relation among sleep, routines, and externalizing behavior in children with an autism spectrum disorder Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 5 (2011) 758-767 Available at ac.els-cdn.com (Accessed 19th February 2014)
Johnson, K. (2012) Stages of Sleep: REM and Non-REM Sleep Available at www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/excessive-sleepiness-10/sleep-101 (Accessed: 23rd February 2014).
Music, G (2011) Nurturing Natures Hove: Psychology Press
National Sleep Foundation (2013) How much sleep do we really need? Available at www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need (Accessed: 18th February 2014).
NHS Choices (2013) How much sleep do kids need? Available at www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Childrenssleep/Pages/howmuchsleep.aspx (Accessed: 18th February 2014).
NHS Choices (2013) How TVs, phones and screens impair kids' sleep Available at www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Childrenssleep/Pages/junksleep.aspx (Accessed: 10th January 2014).
NIH (2013) Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Available at www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm (Accessed: 23rd February 2014).