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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.
 

Robert can’t remember having a problem sleeping when he was a small boy, but he does remember...

Robert can’t remember having a problem sleeping when he was a small boy, but he does remember...

Age at interview: 77
Sex: Male
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Do you remember how you slept when you were a little boy. Do you remember was there a routine in your house?
 
No. No I don’t remember. Well it was during the war, and I was what 8, eight years old when the war started and we always slept in blackouts. I think I slept in a single bed and my sister and I shared a room and then she went into another room. But when I was 16 I left home, and went to become an apprentice in [Town]. I never had any trouble then. You know, apart from the bloke upstairs knocking on the floor, and go upstairs and thump him. No I never had any cause to even think about sleeping being other than natural. I was always a physically active, you know in athletics and things like that and making things. And particularly so at [Town]. Well, probably getting up in the morning was the worst thing. We had to be at work at half past seven, well if we were in the establishment itself, so it was never, never a bad routine. I always slept when I was required to.
 

Dessie thinks the strict routine surrounding bed and wake times her mother imposed on her as a...

Dessie thinks the strict routine surrounding bed and wake times her mother imposed on her as a...

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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I would go to sleep about half eleven. Go to bed about half ten ish and have a little read and then I wake up about 6 to half past.
 
And do you sleep right the way through then?
 
Yes.
 
So that’s a good night’s sleep?
 
That’s a good night’s sleep. That’s a good …
 
And how often have you slept like that?
 
Well I think all my life I have been a very early riser and my Mother was very strict with early to bed and early to rise when we were little children and I think that stays with you and I understand that some people are owls and some are larks. And so, I think I am a lark anyway, I get up early all my life.
 
Do you think you are a lark because though that is what you would choose to do or whether that is that is how you were brought up?
 
I think it was how I was brought up. I don’t know any different now.
 

Anne remembers there was a bedtime and wake up routine in her home and has fond memories of her...

Anne remembers there was a bedtime and wake up routine in her home and has fond memories of her...

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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I’m sure I slept well as a child. And I also have a clear memory of being a young teenager and my Dad waking me up mid morning at the weekend and saying it's eleven o’clock. But because I married at 20 I wasn’t in that environment really long enough, oh and of course before that I was working for the [organisation] and so I had to get up early to go to work and I used to …I didn’t work shifts in the night time thing. But I worked Saturdays and Sundays and from that point onwards I don’t ever remember needing to be awakened in the morning.
 
So that was when you went to do the shifts, you weren’t doing shifts, when you went to work for the [organisation]?
 
Well when I was working weekends, because it was only at the weekend that Dad would have brought the tea in you see. I don’t remember whether it was a Saturday or a Sunday. Probably a Sunday. But I just have these odd clear memories of him coming in with a cup of tea and telling me what the time was.
 
Time to get up. And did you have routine. Even when you were a little girl can you remember if there was a routine around bed times and get up times?
 
We always had a regular routine when we were young children. I have got a younger sister, two years younger, so we always went to bed at the same time and we were always in the same room and that kind of thing. And certainly while we lived in Yorkshire when Dad was not away working, he always used to come and do our prayers with us, you know, we always used to have him. It was always Dad I remember, who always came and put the light out and had the routine at Christmas with the light bulbs and things.
 
I don’t remember not going to sleep then. I’m sure we slept like logs. And again you know, as children we were very outdoor active that kind of thing.
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.
 

Margaret spent several years in hospital and still remembers the rules and disciplines...

Margaret spent several years in hospital and still remembers the rules and disciplines...

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
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So getting back to your question about sleeping, you had to know about the hospitalisation because you know, I can’t really tell you. But when I got back from hospital eventually at 13 my Mother was living with her Father, my grandfather and looking after him. He was getting on a bit and needed care so she lived with him and I went to live in that situation with my grandfather.
 
He’d had six children and he was fed up with children so you can imagine what it was like. It was not very good for a thirteen year old and I can’t really remember, I think, I think hospital was very, very, very good for me in respect of learning routines, systems. Disciplining, being disciplined. Living within your own world, but also within a bigger community. And so I gained a lot from living in hospital because you have to live to certain boundaries, and you have your own boundaries inside you as well. It’s a bit like being in jail really, you know, you have quite an extensive internal life, but not such a good external life.
 
So I think that the disciplines of hospital were brought into my family life and I still was sleeping pretty well because that’s what you did, you were meant to sleep. But having said that I’ve just remembered, that when I was, between the ages of ten and thirteen I was in hospital and I was extremely unhappy and I think it was because I was aware at that time I had had two years or so out of hospital and I knew what life could be like and here I was back in jail again. And I devised a method of sleeping, its sounds funny, but the rule of the hospital and there was a kitchen window and here was the door to where, the veranda, we were all outside in the air underneath a veranda. And so this door had a space for one bed and I went into that, I used to ask if I could be, so I could read to my heart’s content and at night the kitchen light would be on because people would be working in there making breakfast and stuff and things, so I would read by the light of the kitchen at night. So if I couldn’t sleep that’s what I did. 
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.
 

Anne’s memories of the war include sleeping in an air raid shelter and of her mother rushing out...

Anne’s memories of the war include sleeping in an air raid shelter and of her mother rushing out...

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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My memories of the war are usually what fun a lot of it was, as a child and the night time is because our house had a cellar, a big cellar, and we were designated as the road's air raid shelter. And although living in Yorkshire we didn’t have the bombing that everybody down here did, we did have some and there was damage and so a lot of the time, we and some of the neighbours and obviously their kids were in our shelter. It was more fun than anything. I am sure there must have been times when we actually went to sleep there. But, because I only remember the waking times. And there was one particular night when we were being bombed nearby and my Mother, this is a you know, family tale that we’ve heard so many times, it is not just my own memory, it is everybody telling this tale, this bomb, my Mother was convinced had hit our house, so being the woman she was she charges out of the shelter, up the steps, that’s us she said. I’ve got to go and see to it. And my Father saying you can’t go'. 'Oh yes, I can'.
 
In the middle of an air raid?
 
Yes. So she goes off and then she came back and she said well actually we haven’t been hit it's further down the road!
 
That was all right.
 
Well they were both air raid wardens or whatever, so you know, they obviously took over. But it was just so funny that anybody else, you know, like me probably would have cowered under the furniture but she had to get out there and deal with it!
 

William recalls having to get out of bed and go down to their cellar during air raids, and...

William recalls having to get out of bed and go down to their cellar during air raids, and...

Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
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When I was, the war started when I was ten and my Father was in the army away. So I was essentially just my Mother and I and over six years we became very close, you know, not Mother and son, so much as sort of companions although I was naïve at ten. But by the time I was at the end of the war I was 16, so I was just about becoming a young man if you like and of course the war experiences and what have you made you grow up and…
 
Where were you living at the time?
 
In Kent. Saw all the Battle of Britain fantastic. I thought it was, of course I was only ten eleven. Old enough not to be frightened and young enough not to realise how bloody dangerous it was.
 
Yes, so you were aware of the blitz and the bombing?
 
Oh well certainly we had some bombing in [Town], but we certainly saw the blitz because when they were hitting London in '41, '42, [Town], is only 35 miles away and the whole the sky. We used to stand at the bedroom windows and you could see all the, looking West, the whole sky lit up, which must have been the glow from round over the world, you know, with the curvature of the earth is that much so you weren’t seeing the actual London fire you were seeing the glow of several hundreds of feet up, you know, on the horizon, unbelievable, and of course it was all censored anyway, you only knew that London was being bombed. I mean we learnt more post war seeing the television than you actually knew when you saw it.
 
So you experienced the blackout?
 
Oh yes, yes.
 
And how was that at night time?
 
Well I was young enough really not to, you’re invulnerable, you know, nothing happens to you. But I was concerned, I remember you putting it like that, I haven’t thought about this for ages. My mother was terribly frightened, but she was, I thought she was frightened because of me. She was frightened that something would happen to me, which she obviously did, but she was a woman that was on her own and was frightened.
 
So did she have to pick you up, or did she have to wake you up and take you down to air raid shelters?
 
No, well yes, several times when the siren went we used to, well we didn’t have an air raid shelter. We had a house that had a cellar and I remember sitting on the cellar steps she and I, you know, with blankets round us when you could hear bombs dropping but as I say [Town], wasn’t being bombed, it was aircraft coming back and they'd turn around at the chaps would say 'I am not going into that lot' and the Germans sort of turned round and just dropped them where they liked so as to get rid of so that if they got home they didn’t turn up with a load of bombs for them to say well where have you been bombing.
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.
 

Carol remembers not being allowed to stay in bed in the mornings when she was a teenager, unlike...

Carol remembers not being allowed to stay in bed in the mornings when she was a teenager, unlike...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Female
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Thinking further back to when you were a young girl and at home did you have a bedtime routine or did you choose? I am quite interested in how people’s histories impact on…
 
No I think, for those days, obviously it is totally different now, but in those days it was perfectly normal until I left school. When I left school I worked in the centre of [Town], and then I would go out a couple of nights a week and definitely Saturdays and Sundays with my friend. In those days we used to go to dance halls. There wasn’t a great deal for us to do, or the cinema or shows or what have you.
 
And you were allowed to sleep in the next day or did you have to have a set bedtime routine?
 
Was I allowed to sleep in? In those days, you mean like they do now, sleep all day. Never. Nobody ever did it. No we just didn’t do it. Saturdays we got up, my sister and I. Mum worked half a day six days a week at a fire station as a cook and on Saturdays she worked as well and before she got home, I had done downstairs all the cleaning and upstairs my sister. Or whatever vice versa. And so I think we were a lot less selfish in those days. I mean dinner, lunch or whatever was on the table when Mum came in and the house was spotless. We never thought twice about it. We weren’t badly done to. No way. We felt we had a perfectly normal childhood. Yes. Family around and even on my Father’s side my Grandma, we walk her on Sundays, the four of us my Mum and Dad and my sister and I walk over there for tea and it was miles, absolutely miles, but we walked there. I think about it now. I can’t begin to think how far it was but we did without thinking.
 
And back again?
 
Yes, oh yes. there were two buses to catch if we did get the bus get but…
 
But you just got out and walked?
 
Oh gosh yes, and the cinema. The cinema was miles away but we would go in a group and walk all the way there and all the way back.  
 

Mike remembers sleeping well when he was a teenager and young adult and having children was the...

Mike remembers sleeping well when he was a teenager and young adult and having children was the...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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I can’t believe my parents were that strict. I mean I’m sure there were general routines about what time you go to bed but I’d say they wouldn’t have been strict. They weren’t the sort of people that would have said, 'right its 8 o’clock off you go'. And so, although I would imagine there was a sort of general time at each age group when it was assumed that you would go to bed. It wouldn’t have been anything that was applied with any sense of strictness. I would have still have had some sort of input into it I would have thought.
 
So you had some choices?
 
Yes. I am sure yes. yes.
 
And would you class yourself as a good sleeper then?
 
I think I was yes. I have to be honest I can’t see it with that sort of clarity, but I do, my general conception is that I was a decent sleeper. Probably that’s not a very good word term as far as you are concerned. But I used to sleep well, and wake up feeling sort of fairly refreshed. I don’t know how, what the time scale to that was. I suppose when I’m talking about that, I’m talking about when I was still at school, and probably when I first left school, I used to have to make... my first sort of proper job I was working in the West End of London and travelling from [Town], and so I used to have to get up quite early so I imagine that was a little bit of a change of pattern. And then I was, I stayed on the usual bedsit route, so God knows what I was doing then. I imagine I was probably out and about a little bit more then. But certainly my general, the general feeling I get is that I slept fairly well and fairly consistently and fairly refreshingly during my young years, teens and twenties. But I’m not sure I’m certain about that but that’s what I think.
 
And then subsequent to that you noticed its more broken sleep?
 
Yes, a bit more broken. I always think that I started having more broken sleep after my first, after my eldest daughter was born, but again I could stand to be corrected, but obviously there is nobody there to correct me. But that’s my feeling or conception or whatever it is, is that what’s happened, you know.
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.
 

Juliet remembers that her children slept well after the first few weeks, and believes they were...

Juliet remembers that her children slept well after the first few weeks, and believes they were...

Age at interview: 69
Sex: Female
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What about when they were younger, the children were younger?
 
Well I think probably no I think they slept well. They were good sleepers. They were both easy babies when they were brand new, you know, we had the first twelve, fifteen, sixteen weeks but they were definitely easy children and we all slept well. I think you are probably inclined to be more aware of the fact that you have got two children and we did have a fascinating spell when my son, the second one, he was a bed wetter, and he really was a bed wetter. And I took him down to the doctor and I was told, oh well you know it must be stress. Well it wasn’t stressed he was just one of those, a man, a boy that’s, and we took him up to the hospital, we were referred and we were given the buzzer, the buzzer contraption and [my son] even slept through the buzzer I remember then it was quite a traumatic period because eventually, actually it worked very quickly, but in order to get the buzzer to make even more noise, we had it on an empty biscuit tin and we had quite a few periods during that, but that was the reason for it. You know, it was not, you probably didn’t allow yourself to go into a deep sleep in case you were needed. But I never really had any other kind of problem. It was either a stress or a worry or perhaps may be when my Father died and …but they are the normal family things that you would expect.
 

Joyce not only remembers being very tired when her children were young, but also being woken up...

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Joyce not only remembers being very tired when her children were young, but also being woken up...

Age at interview: 79
Sex: Female
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What about when the kids were smaller?
 
Well I think when your kids were smaller I seem to feel that you were tireder actually you could sleep longer, you know, yes.
 
That is true.
 
You could sleep longer.
 
So did they keep you awake at night when they were smaller?
 
Well my daughter did for the first few weeks. I could have thrown her out the window. I had even got the pram upstairs. But again as I say you are running about all the time with children.
 
You are during the day?
 
You are running about with them.
 
And what about when they were teenagers and they are out and about?
 
Well again you can be a bit over protective and I remember when my daughter was about 16 wanting to go to dances and all that. I mean I never ever stopped her going but I used to insist on picking her up outside and then it was one night I remember. 'Oh I will get a taxi tonight Mum don’t pick me up, don’t pick up'. And of course I am in bed just dozing off and then the phone goes, 'Mum can you come and fetch us there is a big queue for taxis' you see and I had to get out of bed and go and then probably drop three or four of them off as well on the way home. Do you know what I mean. The fact is, well you do tend to be over protective and that. And I mean I would never stop them going but you like to see them safely home. Don't you, the same problems was about then. 
 

Mike believes he hasn’t slept well since his children were small because he was always listening...

Mike believes he hasn’t slept well since his children were small because he was always listening...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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No I have always done that. I think that’s why, even when I was working, or when I was a lot younger I still used to, I don’t think I’ve been a good sleeper since I started having children and I think I can remember reacting the minute anybody makes a noise or made a noise. It is probably slightly different now, then I would wake up. I don’t think it can happen now, because when the boys wander in two, three, four, five o’clock in the morning, I don’t necessarily wake up then.
 
So how many have you got living with you?
 
Well you see I have two children from my first marriage, and now I’ve got the three boys, we have got the three boys here now, from the second marriage so, and they are all here. So I mean they are old enough, in the sense that they’re not a worry in the sense they are physically any danger. But you know when children are small and you hear something, there is a danger type reaction, there’s something gone wrong isn’t there. And I’ve got a feeling somewhere that I haven’t really slept particularly well since then.
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.
 

When Anne’s son was a teenager she used to not be able to sleep until she heard him come home...

When Anne’s son was a teenager she used to not be able to sleep until she heard him come home...

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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So what about teenagers. How were they then. Did they keep you awake at night?
 
Teenagers. I remember not being able to sleep until my son was home at the kind of vulnerable teenage stage. The worst year was the year we bought this house because he was 18 I think then, and obviously totally independent. And he only was here for a year. Is that right? Anyway I might have lost a bit of time somewhere there, and I used to worry until I heard him come in at night. I had no real reason to worry about him but he was in a car and I would just think 'oh what could have happened to him' and so as soon as I heard the car door or something I would be able to go to sleep. But I’m sure that’s normal.
 
Yes that’s very normal. And you were working as well at the time presumably?
 
Yes.

Last reviewed October 2018.

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