Sleep problems in later life

Sleep history in childhood, young adulthood and as a parent

Research into sleep has identified that older adults may sleep less well than younger people, but there are also many other factors that can contribute to poor sleep in later life, such as ill health, less physical activity and daytime napping. However, sleep research has also identified that sometimes poor sleep in later life may have originated earlier in life, such as when having children (see 'Earlier times of poor sleep and their impact on sleep now').
 
To find out if this was the case, we asked people to give us a history of their sleep, starting with when they were children and to describe the routines that existed in their homes, if any. We then asked them whether they remembered how they slept in their teenage years and as young adults and then moved on to ask them to describe what it was like when they had young children and when their own children became teenagers. Although some people had few memories of their sleep in earlier life, some people had quite distinct memories of how they slept, and what influenced their sleep.
 
Sleep as a child
Most people unsurprisingly found it difficult to remember how their sleep was when they were very young children and generally had a perception that they slept well, the only change being when they became teenagers, when they wanted to sleep in longer in the morning. Nearly everyone remembered that their childhood sleep was governed by some sort of routine. Whereas some people had very strict routines, others felt they had much more freedom around choosing when to go to bed. But generally it was acknowledged that a routine had to be in place, especially when there were several children in the household, or only one parent. Routines that were started in childhood sometimes continued throughout people’s lives and influenced how they slept now.
Although most people told us they remember sleeping well as children, a few had particular events that stuck in their minds as being influential on how they slept then, and continue to disturb their sleep now. Memories of childhood illnesses stayed with some of the people we spoke to. Mary’s father used to help her with her chronic asthma when she was a young child by boiling kettles in the night to help her breathing, and she believes that may have been the start of her disturbed sleep pattern which continues to this day. Margaret can still remember how being in hospital for long periods of time affected her sleep. She used to read when in hospital to help pass the time at night, and still does that now.
Recollections of the war often featured in people’s histories of their sleep, with some finding it a big adventure, and others being more disturbed by what they saw, heard and smelt. Margaret told us she remembers how she could detect a change in the air when a German shell was launched from France. Their memories of the war were extremely vivid, and people told us how they even now recall the events, sometimes as dreams or nightmares.
Sleep as a teenager
Several people had memories of sleeping well when they were teenagers, although they might have wanted to stay in bed longer if they could. Some people commented that it was different in the past because they weren’t allowed to have a lie-in in the morning, unlike teenagers today, because their parents would expect them to get up. But generally most of those who remember how they slept in their teenage and early adulthood years believed they slept well and that it was subsequent events such as having children or work stress that changed their sleeping patterns.
Having a young family
For many of the people we spoke to the memories of how their own children slept were quite vague, with most of them telling us that, apart from when their children were very young babies and woke up for feeding, that their sleep wasn’t too disturbed. A few people, though, had vivid memories of many sleepless nights with their young children. Val slept like a log when she was younger, but when her children came along she remembers she was always tired. For some, having children caused a permanent change in their sleeping patterns. When their children were babies, they slept lighter because they were listening for them to wake up in the night and this type of sleep pattern continued even though their children are now grown up.
Not being able to get to sleep when their own children were teenagers and out at night was commonly reported to us by the people we talked to. Both mothers and fathers talked of waiting to hear until their children were in safely before being able to get to sleep, even if it was the early hours of the morning. Parents were particularly worried if their children were either driving or being driven by someone else, in case they had an accident.

Last reviewed September  2015.

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