Secondary Data Analysis ESRC Sleep and Education and Mental Health outcomes

Project: Research council

Project Details


Around 25% of children under three have sleep problems, such as difficulties getting to sleep and frequent night waking. Poor sleep during the early years has immediate consequences for behaviour and mood, as well as having a deleterious effect on parent health and family functioning; however, we have a relatively poorer understanding of how persistent early sleep difficulties are and whether they influence future outcomes such as school grades and mental health. Identifying whether and which early sleep difficulties impose a risk to later academic and mental health outcomes is of societal importance: Such research has the potential to reveal early risk factors for later academic problems and mental ill health that can be mitigated through raising awareness of the importance of sleep during this critical period and identifying routes to support. It would also further emphasize the need to provide guidance on sleep to early years providers, which is currently lacking.
There is some evidence that sleep difficulties can persist across development. There is also evidence that sleep quality and quantity in childhood predicts mental health and cognitive abilities in later childhood. However, methodological limitations prevent us from using these findings to inform policy on early sleep. For example, a lack of long-term longitudinal studies means that little is known about the effects of early sleep across childhood and adolescence. We have little understanding of the particular aspects of early sleep that persist over development and predict later sleep difficulties and real-world outcomes, such as diagnoses of mental illnesses and school grades. It is also unclear who is at heightened risk of poor sleep: previous research suggests that sleep is a particularly important driver of cognitive development in children from low socio-economic status backgrounds, but we do not know whether this is the case in the early years. Finally, although cognition and mental health are closely related, research investigating the effects of early sleep on these outcomes has done so in isolation. A much-needed integrative approach would allow us to examine the interactions between these variables, working to considerably advance our understanding of how early sleep affects later outcomes.
The current project will address these important gaps utilising existing large-scale longitudinal datasets. Primarily, we will use the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which follows the lives of around 14,000 individuals born in 1991-1992. The dataset is rich, containing data from birth through to adolescence. In addition, Born in Bradford, which is following the lives of 13,500 children born in 2007-2010, will allow us to examine relationships between early sleep and educationally relevant outcome measures that are still in use. With these datasets we will address a number of key questions, such as do early sleep characteristics that emerge in the first three years of life predict sleep characteristics in later childhood and adolescence? Do early sleep characteristics predict later mental health, vocabulary, and educational outcomes? Does the extent to which early sleep characteristics predict later outcomes differ depending on socioeconomic status? What factors drive the relationship between early sleep and later educational outcomes (i.e., are there pathways from early sleep to vocabulary and emotional development that subsequently shape academic outcomes)?
As well as advancing knowledge of the role of sleep in development, this research has a number of societal implications. To ensure we maximise the impact, a crucial element will be to collaborate with The Sleep Charity and the Centre for Applied Education Research to influence national policy concerning early childhood sleep, share our findings with key stakeholders and create free and accessible webinar training on early sleep.
Effective start/end date19/09/2218/09/24

Collaborative partners


  • Economic and Social Research Council


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