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Sweet dreams aren’t made of these: the pandemic, mental health and sleep problems in children and young people

Posted on 19 March 2021 by Dhriti Mandalia, Senior Researcher
Tags: Mental Health of Children and Young People, health, mental health, sleep

The importance of a good night’s rest

According to a survey published by The Sleep Charity, The Sleep Council and Sleepstation, the pandemic is having a damaging effect on children’s sleep routines, with 70% of children reportedly going to bed later and 57% waking up later.

This lack of structure and regular routine, together with the challenges of remote learning and the associated extra screen time, has been a significant source of additional stress for many families during the pandemic. Establishing routines, however unwelcoming they may seem, has become an even more vital part of children’s mental, physical and emotional development at this time.

The NHS recommends around 9 to 12 hours of sleep a day for children of school-age, decreasing to 8 to 10 hours among adolescents. Meanwhile, studies have shown that children and adolescents who receive adequate sleep have improved attention, behaviour, learning, memory and overall mental and physical health.

The costs of a poor night’s sleep

The knock-on effects of too little sleep on children’s mental health and wellbeing were profound even before the pandemic. Poor sleep patterns have been associated with a negative impact on learning, behaviour and cognitive function, affecting children’s overall school performance. The Mental Health Foundation has even reported sleep deprivation in late childhood as a predictor of depression in adolescence.

Have the uncertainties and worries brought on by the pandemic heightened sleep problems among children and adolescents?   

Sleep problems and mental health during the pandemic

In July 2020, following the first national lockdown, the Mental Health of Children and Young People Survey found that one in six (16%) 5- to 16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder, an increase from one in nine (11%) in 2017.

What did this study tell us about sleep problems during the pandemic?

Among children and young people aged 5 to 22, three in ten (29%) had experienced sleep problems in the previous seven days, with sleep problems reported more often by girls (32%) than boys (25%). Those aged 17 to 22 were more likely to experience sleep problems (41%) than younger children (19% of 5- to 10-year-olds and 26% of 11- to 16-year-olds experienced sleep problems).

Importantly, sleep problems were more common among children and young people with a probable mental disorder than those unlikely to have a disorder. Among 11- to 16-year-olds with a probable mental disorder, 51% reported sleep problems compared with 19% of those unlikely to have a mental disorder. This pattern was also evident among 17 to 22 year olds: 70% with a probable mental disorder reported sleep problems, compared with 29% of those unlikely to have a mental disorder.


This cross-sectional study couldn’t determine whether there was a causal link between the COVID-19 pandemic and children’s and young people’s sleep problems. However, we do know that a relatively high proportion of all children and young people reported sleep problems and this proportion was highest among those with a probable mental disorder.

The Mental Health of Children and Young People wave 2 study, which is currently in field, also includes questions on sleep problems. As the pandemic enters its second year, it will be invaluable to see whether sleep in children and young people has changed since last summer, particularly in the current context of a society that is very gradually emerging from a third national lockdown.

The 2020 Mental Health of Children and Young People Survey was part of a series which provides England’s Official Statistics on trends in child mental health. It was commissioned by NHS Digital, with funding from the Department of Health and Social Care. NatCen collaborated with the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the University of Cambridge and the University of Exeter to conduct the research. Further information about the survey and the latest findings are available here.

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