How to alleviate the epidemic of sleep deprived students

What if there was a virus going around affecting 30% of primary school students and 70% teenagers? What if that virus had an adverse affect on physical development, emotional and mental health, behaviour, and learning and academic performance?

These effects are occurring now, not through a virus but an equally virulent epidemic that is sweeping through Australian schools. Sleep Deprivation. The good news is that, unlike many viruses, we know the simple cause and effects of sleep deprivation and can take action now to deliver a cure.

Why is sleep deprivation such an issue?

Sleep, nutrition and exercise are core pillars of a healthy life, but sleep will impair function fastest if you don’t get enough:

  • Learning and academic performance: sleep helps concentration and motivation along with consolidation and strengthening of new information and memories.
  • Emotional and mental health: studies show children who are sleep deprived are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, negative body image and low self-esteem.
  • Behaviour and decision making: sleep deprivation affects decision making capacity, has a negative effect on behaviour and relationships, and increases risk of accidents. 
  • Body systems: sleep deprivation affects children’s physical growth, brain development, immune system and plays a key role in weight gain.

Why are our children not getting the sleep they need?

The majority of child and adolescent sleep problems fall into four categories, though for many people a combination are at play.

  • Insufficient sleep: This is the most common sleep problem influenced by lack of understanding of the importance of sleep and hours required for optimal functioning. This combined with a busy lifestyles and the drive to be socially connected means sleep becomes undervalued and a low priority. Together this means children are simply not getting enough sleep for optimal physical and mental health.
  • Psychological Insomnia: Is a common problem reported by adolescents. This includes difficulty initiating sleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, waking up too early and non-restorative sleep causing significant distress or impairment. The cause is often anxiety, depression or stress. Or it could be that they cannot switch off their brain from thinking and let go of the day.
  • Delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPS): Also known as “late body clock” or “night owl”. This can be generally defined when the teen‘s sleep is delayed by more than 2 hrs of the desired time. They have difficulties getting to sleep, being more awake late at night and sleepy in the morning. This creates difficulties getting up at the appropriate time in the morning and they may describe feeling permanently jetlagged. This body clock preference in adolescence is a mix of biological factors, further exacerbated by lack of parental monitoring, academic and social pressures and the use of electronic devices.
  • Snoring and Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): Loud and regular nightly snoring is often abnormal in otherwise healthy children. Sometimes it is a sign of a respiratory infection, a stuffy nose or allergy.  In more serious cases it can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This is caused by an obstruction of airflow when breathing, causing a lack of adequate oxygen supply to the brain. In children this is most commonly due to enlarged tonsils and adenoids but may also be influenced by factors including obesity and small airways.

How much sleep do our children need?

Dr Chris Seton from the SleepShack says the best way to judge how much sleep a child needs is to assess whether it's “enough for them to wake spontaneously – meaning without an alarm clock - on most mornings and avoid tiredness during the day at least until the last hour before bedtime".

The National Sleep Foundation recommends:

  • Preschoolers (3-5 years old) : 10-13hrs
  • Primary School Aged Children (6-12years old) : 9-11 hrs
  • Teens (13-17 years old) : 8-10 hrs

How do we identify children who are sleep deprived?

  • Tired body language
  • Difficulties concentrating, poor short term memory, declining grades
  • Moody and stressed
  • Late for school
  • Younger children can exhibit symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), becoming excitable, hyperactive, disagreeable and engaging in extreme behaviours like tantrums or aggression

For others signs visit: Signs that children are tired

What can we do to raise awareness?  

The first step is to create an awareness of the current level of sleep deprivation among students and the effect this is having on all aspects of their lives. Here are some sleep tips: 

IMPORTANT: Seek advice from a health professional.

If you remain concerned that problems with sleep, however mild, are having an impact on you in terms of wellbeing, school, relationships or home life then seek advice and see below for options.


The Woolcock is home to Australia’s only specialist Paediatric and Adolescent Sleep Service which assesses and manages all sleep disorders in children and teenagers.

Good sleep is vital for healthy growth and development in infants and children. However 70 per cent of teenagers have insufficient sleep thanks to the pressure to keeps up with school, family and friends.

Children who develop sleep problems are prone to mood disorders, antisocial behaviour, growth delays and learning problems. 

Please read our brochure for more information. 

Click here to visit our Paediatric Sleep Clinic. 


To book an appointment at the Woolcock Paediatric Sleep Clinic please contact reception on:

T: (02) 9114 0000
F:  (02) 9114 0010


Do you have sleepy teenagers at your school or at home? Come along to oursleep education seminar here at the Woolcock Institute on 27 October 2016.

Optimal learning is impossible without adequate sleep. Adolescent sleep deprivation is increasingly common in our busy world, and carries many risks and consequences for teenagers. Sleep deprivation is related to poor academic outcomes, psychological problems, reduced school attendance, and increasing in risk taking behaviours. Parents and educationalists are therefore well placed to detect sleep deprivation, but implementing specific management strategies is difficult as teenagers are resistant to some components of sleep health treatments. This seminar outlines detailed treatment pathways to help students optimise their sleep.

Presented by Adolescent Sleep Physician, Dr Chris Seton and Adolescent Sleep Psychologist Dr Amanda Gamble from the Woolcock Institute. This seminar will teach you all you need to know about adolescent sleep, as well as showing you how to detect problems and implement practical assistance to your sleepy teenagers.

You can view our sleep education seminar brochure here. 

When: 27 October 2016. 

Where: Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, Level 5, Glebe Point Road, Glebe NSW 2037

For who: Parents, teachers, counsellors, psychologists and others involved in high school education


"Sleep for Better Health, Resilience and Performance” is a school program for students, parents, teachers and wellbeing staff. 

For more information visit The Sleep Connection and Program Overview.



SleepShack is the clinically proven, online sleep program for pre-teens* (10-12 years) and teenagers (13-18 years). If you have any questions regarding the correct pathway simply email For more information visit SleepShack