Opinion: successive Irish governments have been asleep at the wheel in relation to sleep loss in children and young people

Irish policy makers need to wake up to the issue of sleep loss affecting children and young people's education and health. Most children and young people need at least nine hours of restful sleep each night. Sleep loss impacts on a wide range of aspects in a child’s education, such as his/her attention, reasoning, memory, motivation and school performance, as well as social and behavioural aspects, such as interaction with both teachers and peers.

Regular, quality and adequate length sleep is associated with general wellbeing, feeling stable and being able to cope with emotional distress. Since sleep deficiency is related to physical tiredness and fatigue, psychological distress and increased vulnerability, it tends to affect general wellbeing and school attainment. Prolonged sleep deficiency in childhood and adolescence can have a negative impact on brain development.

The impact of using digital media before sleep should also be highlighted. Irish research has revealed high levels of electronic media available in the bedrooms of Irish school-aged children. International research finds that the more such digital media is used immediately before sleeping, the shorter is sleep duration and the higher are psychological symptoms such as feeling low, irritable or nervous, having a bad temper and such bodily symptoms as headache, stomach-ache and dizziness.

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A recent article published in the Irish Educational Studies journal by Ciara Hargadon and Paul Downes of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University identifies that substantial change to children’s sleep patterns is possible to achieve. This involved awareness-raising through reflective diaries by children on their sleep patterns, as well as information, dialogue sessions for parents on the importance of sleep. Changes were achieved even on a brief five-week classroom programme, with just one hour in class per week.

Back in 2007, the Educational Disadvantage Centre’s Count Us In study of DEIS schools in Dublin 8 revealed concerning levels of children and young people going to bed on a schoolday after midnight. It found that over 15% of pupils went to bed after midnight on a weekday before school in four out of seven DEIS primary schools,. Some pupils also reported stress affecting their ability to sleep.

This issue is largely overlooked in key Irish policy documents. Sleep loss in children and young people does not feature at all as an issue to be addressed in the Better Outcomes Brighter Futures: National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020. This is a glaring gap in Irish social policy.

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Other key national policy documents in education in recent years, as well as past decades, such as the Department of Education and Skills' Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice 2018–2023the DEIS Strategy 2005 and DEIS Action Plan on Social Inclusion in Education 2017 offer literally nothing on this issue. Children and young people’s sleep loss is basically an invisible issue in Irish educational policy and we cannot afford to continue to neglect this important area. 

In stark contrast, international policy at EU level and as a children's rights issue at UN level recognises the need for children to rest and to avoid sleep loss. The EU Commission's key documents on early school leaving 2011 identify the issue of sleep deficits. This is an issue increasingly being reviewed in international research. It is also to be emphasised that sleep loss is a children’s rights issue, with Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognising the right "to rest".

Successive Irish governments across several departments have been asleep at the wheel in relation to sleep loss in children and young people. The new national policy framework for children and young people cannot come soon enough to finally address this issue of sleep loss affecting key aspects of many children and young people’s lives.

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Our recent study indicates that sleep patterns are malleable behaviours. The notable risk factor of sleep loss affecting children and young people's education, health and wellbeing can be quickly altered with even brief awareness raising among both children and their parents and through active learning approaches so that children gain ownership over this issue.

We also need further research on the long-term impact of curricular supports in dialogue with parents, to sustain attitude and behaviour change regarding sleep patterns of children and young people. Further Irish policy provision and research must centrally include better supports for trauma in school-going children and to analyse the impact of trauma, anxiety and stress related factors on sleep loss in our children and young people.

Sleep loss is an invisible issue in Irish educational policy and we cannot afford to continue to neglect this important area

It is clear that policymakers in Irish education need to find universal curricular approaches aimed at all children and young people. This must be combined with targeted approaches for children and young people at higher risk with regard to sleep loss, approaches involving a range of departments.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ