A pioneering NHS pilot scheme to help vulnerable children improve their sleep patterns has delivered significant improvements to families’ health and wellbeing.

The programme in Sheffield, developed by the NHS, the Children’s Sleep Charity and Sheffield City Council, delivers sleep clinics to children from troubled backgrounds or with very challenging behaviour, resulting in children sleeping well and performing better at school, while freeing up time for parents to recharge and be better able to look after their family.

The results come as the NHS is launching a programme to transform care for children and young people as part of its Long Term Plan for the health service in England.

Sheffield Children’s Hospital has been trialing the classes for families of children with brain development disorders or who have gone through trauma in the past which affects their sleep and contributes to ill health and extra demands on the health service.

During the programme, specialists in sleep offer help and advice to parents over the phone and in one to one sessions, on how to help children – some of whom only sleep for four to five hours per night – to sleep better, including helping to get into a routine around bedtime and teaching mums and dads techniques which help kids to stay calm before bedtime despite impact on their wellbeing from ill health or trauma.

As well as improving the mental health of children involved, the measures had a significant impact on parents’ wellbeing, with the number of carers, mums and dads reporting illnesses like headaches, anxiety, depression and infections falling by 16 per cent, from more than two-thirds to 51 percent.

Claire Murdoch, mental health director for NHS England, said: “The NHS Long Term Plan sets out an ambitious programme to improve children’s health, with investment in mental health services for young people at a record high.

“NHS investment means world-leading treatments increasingly are available for young people, and common sense, effective measures like this can offer a practical and life-changing helping hand to millions of families.

“As we continue to deliver on our Long Term Plan for the health service in England, whole-person care for young people and their families, which addresses the cause of ill health as well as the symptoms, and supports parents and carers as well as children, will be introduced across the country.”

Professor Heather Elphick, consultant in paediatric sleep medicine at Sheffield Children’s, set up the three-way partnership known as ‘The Sheffield Children and Young People’s Sleeping Well Project’.

The research allowed specialists from multi-disciplinary teams to develop support strategies to support children, young people and their families.

Professor Heather Elphick said: “This project has made life better for children, young people and their families across the city with a positive impact not just in the amount of sleep gained but in the wellbeing and quality of life for the whole family.

“The programme also reduces the need for a patient to receive medication and intensive medical treatment. A good night’s sleep is more than just a nice-to-have, and is actually a significant boost to health and wellbeing, particularly for young people living with ADHD and mental ill health.

“At Sheffield Children’s we have a holistic approach to care for our patients, and this programme is an example of how we work to support patients and their parents and carers both in and out of the hospital, working with partners to do so.

“Regular support by phone and in person, alongside expert advice for parents, has led to better health, improved performance at school and a happier home for the families we’ve cared for.”

Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “Helping children sleep well can be a tricky part of parenting, especially when parents themselves are often sleep deprived. But good sleep is important for children’s development both physically and mentally – and helping parents to navigate those early months and years is vital so that good habits are established young.”

Disturbed sleep in children can have a significant impact, and as well as leading to challenging behaviour, can contribute to serious ill health, restrict cognitive development and lead to learning difficulties.

For many families, this sort of ill health can prompt children to end up taking medication and requiring intensive medical assistance, which the Sheffield model shows can be minimised with a better sleeping pattern.

Other successes of the Sheffield model include:

  • Children gaining an extra 2.4 hours sleep per night
  • Those young people involved reporting a significant improvement in their mental state after a night’s sleep, going from ‘grumpy’ to ‘happy’
  • The time taken to get to sleep falling by more than half, from over
    two hours to just over half an hour
  • Parents and carers reporting that their quality of life and wellbeing improved on a range of measures including feeling less stressed, less isolated and having a better relationship with their child. As well as children with disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), sleeping problems have been identified as being a particular problem for young people who have been adopted, or placed in foster families, while any child who has experienced neglect or trauma earlier in life is also likely to have sleeping difficulties and could therefore benefit from programmes like this.
  • Up to eight in 10 children with additional needs are thought to have sleep
    problems affecting their wellbeing. Trialling programmes to improve health which avoid prescription drugs is part of the NHS Long Term Plan’s effort to increase the use of ‘social prescribing’, with 1,000 extra staff working with GPs to offer tailored, personal care based on every individual’s unique circumstances.