Embodying and Embedding Children's Sleep: Some Sociological Comments and Observations

by Simon Williams, Pam Lowe and Frances Griffiths
University of Warwick, Aston University, University of Warwick

Sociological Research Online 12(5)6

Received: 8 Sep 2005     Accepted: 21 Feb 2007    Published: 30 Sep 2007


This paper, drawing on our own research findings data, explores the embodiment and embedment of sleeping in children's everyday/night lives. Key themes here include children's attitudes and feelings toward the dormant body, the processes, routines and rituals associated with going to bed and going to sleep, issues associated with bedrooms and privacy, and finally the relationship between dormancy and domicile. This in turn provides the basis, in the remainder of the paper, for a further series of reflections on the mutually informing relations between the sociology of sleep and the sociology of childhood. Remaining questions and challenges involved in researching children's sleep are also considered. Sleep, it is concluded, is not simply a rich and fascinating sociological topic in its own right it also has the potential to shed valuable new light on a significant yet hitherto under-researched part of children's lives, contributing important new insights in doing so.

Keywords: Children, Childhood, Sleep, Sociology, Embodiment


1.1 The sociology of childhood, or perhaps more correctly a sociology for childhoods in the plural, is now a thriving field of inquiry (Mayall 1996, 2002; James et al. 1998; Prout 2000; Lee 2001). This recent upsurge of sociological interest in turn reflects and reinforces broader trends, discourses and debates in society today concerning the voices and rights of children, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (agreed in 1989), which as Prout (2005: 31) comments, 'surpasses the modernist notion of children as a cultural "other"', raising children's social participation as a goal alongside a commitment to their protection and provision. Recent debates, staged in the UK national press, about the fate or future of childhood underline these trends (Brooks 2006). Childhood, we might say, has well and truly come of age, though for some critics of course it is rapidly 'disappearing' (Postman 1983,Steinberg and Kincheloe 1997).

1.2 The sociology of/for childhoods has been an important development, challenging a range of adult-centric conceptions and agendas along the way, not least the notion of childhood as somehow 'natural' or 'universal'. One aspect of children's lives that remains stubbornly neglected or under-researched within the sociology of/for childhoods, however, concerns sleep. This perhaps is surprising given that sleep or sleeping is a key part of childhood and parenting.

1.3 To date, nonetheless, research on children and sleep has been dominated by sleep science and sleep medicine, including studies of childhood sleep disorders and professional advice/guidance to parents how to ensure their baby/toddler/child has a sound night's sleep (Ferber 1985; Ferber and Kryger 1995). At one and the same time, concerns are now growing, in professional circles at least, that children are not getting 'enough' sleep (Wiggs 2007In this issue).

1.4 In this paper we seek to redress this disciplinary imbalance, or at least to take a small step in that direction, through some sociological comments and observations on children's sleep. In part we draw on our own preliminary research in this area for illustrative purposes, but we also reflect more broadly in the remainder of the paper on lessons for/from the sociology childhood which a sociological engagement with sleep raises, and on some of the remaining conceptual, theoretical and methodological challenges that researching children's sleep poses.

1.5 How salient and significant then is sleep in children's everyday/night lives? And what light does this shed on the sociology of childhood? It is to some provisional answers to these questions, through our own exploratory research data, that we now turn.

Children, sleeping and everyday/night life: Findings from the frontline

2.1 Our exploratory small-scale study involved a multi-method child-centred approach with 9 children and young people aged between 5 and 15 (5 girls and 4 boys). Whilst the children and young people were recruited through a snowball sample of parental contacts, informed consent was sought from the children themselves. All the children and young people were given a leaflet informing them about the research to help them make up their minds, and parents were explicitly asked not to try to influence their child's decision. The children and young people who consented were asked to complete a sleep diary over a one-week period. They were offered a choice of audio diaries or written diaries. Successful completion did not seem to be related to the type of diary asked for, and in total only 6 of the children and young people managed to keep the diary. After the diary period the children and young people were interviewed in their own home using a mixture of open questions and a write and draw technique. The interviews were largely unstructured, and were based around 4 key areas: sleeping patterns, sleeping spaces, autonomy in sleep decisions and feelings about sleep. If the informant had kept a diary, elements of the diary were also explored in greater depth during the interviews. The write and draw asked for two pictures on one sheet of paper. One side of the paper was headed by a happy face and the other side had a sad face. The children and young people were asked to draw something they would associate with each side in connection to sleep. At the younger ages, the parents did facilitate the audio diaries, but none of the parents were in the room at the time of the interview. The final data collected is listed in the table below:

2.2 All data, including write and draw materials, were coded and analysed (using NVIVO) in terms of emerging themes and issues regarding the negotiation and social context of children's sleeping arrangements within their families.

2.3 In terms of our data, four broad themes emerged, pertaining respectively to: (i) attitudes and feelings about sleep(iness); (ii) going to bed/sleep; (iii) bedrooms and privacy; (iv) dormancy and domicile. Taking each of these in turn:

(i) Attitudes and feelings about sleep(iness); The dormant/drowsy body

2.4 Sleep consumes a good deal of children's time, particularly in the early years. By early school age, for example, the average child will have spent more time asleep than any of the following: all social interaction, environmental exploration, eating, playing, all walking activity (Wiggs 2004, 2005). Sleep is also of course important for children's physical (children quite literally grow 'up' in their sleep), social and emotional development.

2.5 Getting children to voice their attitudes and feelings towards sleep as such, however, proved difficult (a point we shall return to later in the paper), in part no doubt because it is something of a blank in all our lives. Little comment or judgement was passed, directly or explicitly at least, as to whether or not they liked or disliked sleep, or on the embodied feelings and experiences associated with it. The primary way in which sleep was discussed, indeed, was in terms of its embodied impact on children's everyday lives and roles (i.e. largely in functional terms). This, in particular, occurred when the negative effects of lack of sleep where considered. An eight-year-old girl, for example, remarked in her interview:

If you don't get sleep you'll just be really tired and you'll just start falling asleep, so it's best for you to go to sleep, even if you only sleep like… because when my dad works on nights he only sleeps three hours a day. So it's… that's still good, because then you can just go to sleep and relax… you relax. But if you don't have any sleep you'd be really tired...I think it's healthy when you do have a nice sleep because you're more active in the day so you can do more things. Because if you were going for a running race and didn't have any sleep, you would be last…

2.6 Similarly, a twelve-year-old boy stated about a night before a match:

If I don't have my sleep I won't be able to play football so…I make sure I'm in bed by 10 O'clock or something…. (…) I do it myself usually

2.7 Impacts on school performance, such as sleepiness in the classroom, were also sometimes invoked (though less commonly than impacts on other non-scholastic roles in children's everyday lives), as the following interchange with a 10 year old boy reveals:

Interviewer: What about if you don't get enough sleep how do you feel the next day?
Informant: I feel quite drowsy and tired…. When I go to school I keep falling asleep in the lesson
Interviewer: Does that happen very often?
Informant: No not very often.
Interviewer: What would you do about it?
Informant: I'd just try to get sleep over the following week.
Interviewer: Right, and would you do that yourself?
Informant: I'd do it by myself if I was tired but sometimes mum would have to help me with stuff. Like if I'm watching a programme downstairs then she'll tell me to go upstairs.

2.8 Worry was also recognised as something affecting both the quantity and quality of sleep. A thirteen-year-old girl, for example, in her write and draw material, drew herself awake because she was worried about something. Her worries would be 'Things like… you couldn't sleep because you've fallen out with your friend or something'

2.9 Some children, however, appeared less sure about the costs and consequences of not getting enough sleep. An eight-year-old girl, for example, stated:

I don't really think I should go to bed earlier. I don't mind being tired because it doesn't affect me at school.

2.10 Our data moreover give little indication that children, when reflecting on their own particular sleep, thought they were not getting 'enough' sleep or that the quantity or quality of their sleep was having an adverse affect on their everyday roles.

2.11 If articulating attitudes and feelings towards sleep(iness), as such, proved somewhat difficult for these children, they were nonetheless on firmer terrain when it came to accounts of the social context and social arrangements within which their sleep or sleeping was quite literally embedded, including the processes and practices associated with going to bed and going to sleep.

(ii) Going to bed/sleep;

2.12 Going to bed and going to sleep, themselves of course far from synonymous, is something we all do, in more or less elaborate ways, but these processes and practices may assume particular importance and significance in childhood. Children's accounts of going to bed/sleep, indeed, highlighted a number of key issues here.

2.13 First, children's accounts of going to bed/sleep highlighted the degree to which, depending on age, bedtimes were 'imposed' or 'negotiated' between parent and child. Consider, for example, the following extract from a thirteen-year-old girl:

Before Big Brother started, I was going to bed at about… in-between… yes any time between half nine and say quarter past ten, but then I was watching that so I was going to bed at about quarter to eleven or eleven later. I just take myself to bed but mum will tell me if she wants me to go to bed. I just tend to go anyway. But I'm not downstairs at eleven because I watch it with Max (brother) in Max's room. Mum doesn't really see… but she'll shout up 'Go to bed now!'. I'm just like, 'Let me just watch it to the end it's only a couple of minutes!' and she's like… and sometimes she… mum would just say, 'No!' and then I'd just go to bed, or sometimes I'll say 'Ok.' but then you have to go to bed, you know? I suppose it depends how I behave as well.

2.14 The last line in this extract is particularly revealing, highlighting the relationship or moral economy between bedtime and behaviour where 'good' behaviour may be rewarded with staying up and 'bad' behaviour with going to be bed early.

2.15 Even the youngest children in our sample felt that 'bedtime' was not always fair as the following exchange shows:

Interviewer: What time do you normally go to bed?
Informant: Seven.
Interviewer: When your mummy says it's bedtime how does that make you feel?
Informant: When I'm tired it makes me feel happy but when I'm not tired it makes me feel a bit sad or grumpy (Interview 5year old girl).

2.16 A second key issue concerned children's own articulated fears and anxieties, worries and insecurities about going to bed/sleep and about sources of security and comfort that helped them to do so. One of the youngest informants in our study (a 5 year old girl), for example, described in her audio sleep diary how:

When I go to sleep at night it's all dark and I leave the door open and sometimes I have my mummy in bed with me hugging me. Sometimes she sings along to the songs I've got on my tape and I don't really like going to sleep when the landing light is not on and it's really dark in my bedroom because I feel all scared and I feel like a werewolf's going to jump out at me.

2.17 As she further explained in her interview, whilst her preference would be to always have her mother to remain with her, she will make do with both light and the noise of a song or story tape to feel secure in sleep. These provide constant connection to the waking world, and are sufficient to ward of any 'evils' in the night.

2.18 Older children too may require some comfort in the night. Rather than a constant, however, these comforts become necessary in specific situations, as the following extract illustrates:

I sleep with a Teddy Bear….so when I'm away then… well, when I'm on holiday when I go to sleep with my Nan who lives away, then I take it. But when I'm at my (other) Nan's I don't and when I'm at my dad's I don't… (…) I do have one here (her dads) but it's not as comfortable… (Interview 8 year old girl)

2.19 This girl describes how she no longer needed to sleep with her Teddy every night in the way that she used to when she was younger, although she did still rely on it when sleeping in less familiar places. At her father's house she had different cuddly toys, which she did take to bed with her but they did not bring the same familiar comfort as the one she used at home. Yet when asked to draw about the good things about sleep she drew her teddy:

2.20 Other children spoke about TV or radio as helping them get off to sleep. As one boy put it:

'I'm finding it quite easy with like the radio or the telly because like some of the time they put me to sleep…. you can do it on the timer but I have my remote control … I listen to something to get to sleep' (Boy aged 10).

2.21 His write and draw also portrayed his TV as a 'good thing' about sleep:

'I've drew me sleeping without waking up at night and watching the telly or listening to the radio which helps me get to sleep.'

(iii) Bedrooms and privacy;

2.22 These accounts of going to bed in turn key into a closely related set of issue to do with children's feelings about and uses of their bedrooms. The sharing of bedroom space was a particularly significant issue, for understandable reasons perhaps. All of the children that had their own bedroom appreciated the space that this afforded them, in terms of issues of privacy and the opportunity to makes this space their 'own', particularly if they had had to share previously as the following extracts show:

Well I like having it (bedroom) because if you're upset you can go up there and you can have some privacy to yourself and you can just think about… if you've done something wrong, then you can think about and you have lots of privacy to think… (…). I do other things upstairs as well. I read my Reading Book from school and my Library Books. I don't normally read downstairs because downstairs is too noisy. (Interview, eight-year-old girl)
Interviewer: Do you like having your own room?
Informant: Yes, because a few years ago I used to have to share a room with my brother and then when… and like he gets up and wakes up really early and I kept waking up then.(Interview Boy aged 10)

2.23 It was the fifteen-year-old boy in our study, however, who apparently felt the most conflict and resentment about bedroom space, as his write and draw material illustrates in relation to his brother:

'The last time it happened…Oh! He wanted to turn the light off when I was reading, so I hit him with the book and because I'm bigger I got to keep the light on'.

2.24 Our data also pointed to various forms of 'temporary sharing' or 'eviction' in relation to children's bedroom space, particularly when other family members or guests stay and space is at a premium: another important facet or feature children's (minority group) status and (limited) privacy rights. This indeed can be a particularly significant issue in stepfamilies were bedroom space may become a contested area. The nine-year-old girl we interviewed, for example, described how her stepfather has two children and how they regularly come and stay. Her eleven-year-old stepsister not only sleeps in her room, but seemed to consider it a 'shared' bedroom: a source of some friction or tension it seemed. 'But it is not, it's mine', she stated, and then reported how if her stepsister was noisy at night and woke her up, she would be forced to leave her room and go into her sister's room.

2.25 Embedded within these accounts, as this last example clearly suggests, were related tales and testimonies of sleep disturbance and disruption due to the 'inconsiderateness' of other family members: a violation, in effect, of both the sleeper's right to sleep and their privacy. A thirteen-year-old girl, for example, made the following sleep diary entry:

Tuesday 7:15am: Last night I decided not to watch the late Big Brother (Channel 4 TV show) so I went to bed at 10:00pm. I started to sleep but Max [brother] kept on running in and making me jump and wake up (he was filling me in what was happening on TV). After four times he stopped and I finally got to sleep at 10:20pm. I woke up when my alarm went off at 6:45am, but I fell back to sleep until 7:00am. Apart from that I was not disturbed.

2.26 Similarly, the following sleep diary extract from the fifteen-year-old girl in our study, points to a further source of tension and resentment (in addition to conflicts with her sister identified earlier), this time in relation to her stepfather:

I woke up at about 8.15 and fell back to sleep. I again woke up at 8.45 because I have this monkey door-bell on my bedroom door and my step dad kept setting it off so I tried to ignore it but I couldn't so when I got out of bed I was in a REALLY bad mood because I love my bed (emphasis and spelling as in original)

2.27 Changing family circumstances also impacted on children's sleep. The eight-year-old girl in our study, for example, described how her sleep, due to recent family changes, was interrupted by babies both at home and at her dad's. She reported:

Well now I live with my niece… because Lauren (Aunt) fell out with her boyfriend and now she's living with us with her baby, which is my niece…The other night I think I heard her… I think it was Wednesday night, she woke up at half-five and Lauren went to go downstairs to get the milk and I heard the microwave clanging, so that woke me up… (…) But it is annoying living with a baby and I don't even get a break anymore, because when I'm here (at her dads) I'm with Molly (half-sister) and when I'm at home I've got my niece.

2.28 Children were also sometimes called up to help with the disturbed sleep of other family members, usually younger siblings, which in turn disturbed or disrupted their own sleep. A fifteen-year-old girl, for example, reported that when her mother was on nightshift, her younger sister often disturbed her own sleep as she was reluctant to seek solace from her stepfather. She wrote in her sleep diary:

Monday night: I went to my room at 11:10pm after Big Brother. By the time I got into bed and began to nod off it was 11: 25 but then my little sister came in and said she couldn't sleep, so I got up and put her back to bed. I finally fell asleep at about 11:40 and got up when my alarm went off at 7:10am.

2.29 There was very little mention here or elsewhere, however, of how these children themselves disturbed or disrupted other family members' sleep, including their parents. Undoubtedly many instances of this kind could have been cited, but, in the absence of any prompting on our part, few were.

(iv) Dormancy and domicile: Children as 'multi-site' or 'mobile' sleepers?

2.30 The fourth and final theme in our data concerned the multiple sites or locations in which children slept. Dormancy and domicile, as Schwartz (1970) astutely notes, are intimately related. People, in the main, tend to sleep where they dwell, thereby tying bed to abode and sleep to residency. When families do not all live 'under the same roof', however, children's sleeping places and spaces may rapidly multiply, including stays with separated parents (usually dads) and/or with grandparents, as the following extract illustrates:

Well I'm sleeping at my Grandad's house (tonight) and on Monday I'm sleeping at my mums, on Tuesday I'm sleeping at my Nan's and on Wednesday and Thursday… no I'm only sleeping on Thursday so on Wednesday and Friday I'm sleeping at my mum's and on Saturday I'm sleeping at my Nan's. I'm not sleeping at my dad's this week. (Interview: eight-year-old girl).

2.31 'Stopovers' or 'sleepovers' at friends' houses, particularly as a weekend 'treat', add another important dimension to the picture here. A thirteen-year-old girl, for instance, made the following entry in her sleep diary:

Saturday 10: 20am: Last night I slept at Clare's house, my best friend who lives two doors away. We were laughing and joking until 12:30, then we got into bed, and I slept from that point until 6:45 when I woke up sneezing (hay fever). I fell asleep again but woke up 3 times, 7:10, 7:45, 8:30 before I finally got up with Clare at about 9:30 when the alarm went off.
Stopovers/sleepovers, as this suggests, provides an indexical expression of children's family and friendship networks in which sleep is embedded.

2.32 All in all, then, these findings suggests a rich and detailed picture of the social context of children's sleep and sleeping arrangements. So what light then does this shed on the sociology of childhood and, reciprocally, what light does the sociology of childhood shed on sleep?

Lessons for/from the sociology of childhood

3.1 Sleep, it is clear, may well be a rich and fascinating sociological topic in its own right, but it also has the potential, as our own data demonstrate, to shed valuable new light on existing topics and concerns within the sociology of childhood and beyond. A number of points may be ventured in this respect, pending further sociological research in this rich yet hitherto neglected domain.

3.2 Perhaps the first, most obvious point to stress here, as the title of this paper suggests, is that sleep is a clearly both embodied and embedded in children's everyday/night lives in a number of interconnected, mutually reinforcing ways. To the extent, indeed, that the body is now being more explicitly incorporated within the sociology of childhood, then this of necessity involves investigation of the children's sleeping as well as their waking lives, particularly in view of the large proportion of children's lives spent asleep. As a loss of waking consciousness in or to the intersubjective world, sleep powerfully reminds us of the daily corporeal limits of our participation, in adulthood as well as childhood, in the social order. The importance of sleep, as both liberation from and preparation for the social order, is also underlined here however: a source of particular concern, it seems, given growing concerns and anxieties in professional and popular culture that children are not getting 'enough' sleep. Whether or not, of course, a 'special' case can be made for the particular significance of sleep in childhood, is a moot point. A good deal of children's time, to repeat, is certainly spent asleep. Sleep is also, of course, learnt in families, and part of 'good' or 'bad' parenting may, rightly or wrongly, be judged in terms of whether or not parents ensure their children are getting 'enough' sleep, whatever that means. A 'happy', 'healthy' child, who is able to realise their true 'potential', so the modern day mantra goes, is a well-slept child.

3.3 The sociological notion of doing sleeping (cf.Taylor 1993), at one and the same time, extends the sociological analysis of children's own embodied agency in interesting, important and novel ways, tying into the more general sociological notion of doing childhood. By switching the sociology focus from the event of sleep as such, to the myriad social activities and events which both precede and proceed it, a rich new picture opens up of the social world of sleeping in children's lives -- the meanings, methods, motives and management (cf. Taylor 1993) of children's sleeping, that is to say, within families. This, as we have seen, includes going to bed and going to sleep, parent-child negotiations around bedtimes, as well as children's own roles and responsibilities for the sleeping-waking routines and welfare of other family members, particularly younger siblings (see also Mayall 1996on this point). Children's sleep times or schedules, moreover, are themselves heavily invested in notions of being a 'big' child, a 'little' child or a baby (Christensen, personal communication). The doing of sleeping also alerts us to the social contexts within which sleeping occurs, particularly the spatialisation/sequestration of dormant/sleeping bodies and associated issues to do with intimacy and privacy regarding bodies, bedrooms and behaviour. What we see here then, through the sociological lens of the doing of sleeping, is an important new arena in which children's own embodied agency, and the intergenerational power relations within which it is embedded, comes to the fore.

3.4 The doing of children's sleeping is also, of course, intimately bound up with a variety of 'objects' associated with going to bed and doing sleeping. Teddy bears and other favourite soft toys, cloths and blankets, for example, as our own data suggest, may provide a source of comfort or security for the child, thereby helping ease or facilitate passage both into and out of the sleep role: in-between 'transitional objects' and 'transitional phenomena' in Winnicott's (1958) terms (Lee, personal communication) [1]. 'Finding', 'fetching' and 'playing' with these transitional objects, moreover, as part and parcel of bed time rituals and parent-child routines, may also be important in terms of the child's own identity formation and development, serving simultaneous as both 'part' and 'not-part' of the child (Lee, personal communication). Other forms of comfort associated with bed time, including various 'creature comforts' such as clandestine thumb sucking under the sheets, add a further important dimension to the picture here (cf. Moran Ellis 2005), themselves underling the embodied pleasures, vulnerabilities and (in)securities associated with sleep, sleeping and night-time (Williams 2007). Dreams, dreaming or bedtime fantasies and narratives may also, of course, influence children's sleep in various ways, including indeed their very wish or desire to go to bed/sleep (Christensen, personal communication).

3.5 These issues, however, are themselves socially, culturally and historically variable matters. Children's concern for privacy, for example, articulated in our own study, needs to be seen as a product of their own specific social, cultural and historical circumstances, including their urban location. In other cultures and contexts, indeed, both past and present, the sharing of sleeping arrangements amongst family members is often the norm: a taken-for-granted fact in the local culture within which it embedded -- see, for example, Steger and Brunt (2003) and Van der Geest 2006 on different sleeping cultures, and; Ekirch 2001; Stearns et al. (1996) and Elias (1978/1939) for historical insights on sleep and sleeping in the past.

3.6 These issues in turn connect to current (sociological) debates on the changing nature and character of contemporary childhood at a number of levels. An examination of children's sleep, for example, opens up a fruitful window onto the changing character and context of everyday family life, including issues to do with the coordination and management of both children's and parent's time. Contemporary families, as Prout (2005: 24) notes, 'have to engage with complex timetables in order to coordinate the activities of different members', including both school and work. Children indeed, as Mayall (2002: 64) comments, find themselves ever more 'scholarised' (as learners not workers) with 'free time reduced both in and out of school.' Whilst the evidence does not appear to support the claim that children and parents spend 'less time together', it is nonetheless true that 'both experience a time squeeze' (Prout 2005: 24). Sleep, as such, may be viewed as a critical issue in the everyday/night management of household timetables, particularly in the context of any such 'time squeeze' where 'home' itself is now increasingly likely to be experienced by children as a place of 'comings and goings' (Prout 2005; Christensen et al. 2000). Bedtime or night-time, moreover, may be viewed in terms of the 'qualities of time' for children; the quality, in particular, of having time for 'peace and quiet' in which children can 'lie in bed thinking about…(something)' (Christensen 2002; Christensen, personal communication).

3.7 This in turn links to the rapidly changing technologies within which childhoods are embodied and embedded. Televisions, computers and other forms of entertainment, as various studies show (Van den Bulck 2004), are commonly found in children's bedrooms. Text- messaging at any time of the day or night is another commonly reported pursuit or pastime amongst children and adolescents (Van den Bulk 2003). As these new 'childhood' pre-sleep activities become more widespread, sleep experts argue, so the more traditional (calming, relaxing) ones such as reading or being read to, have declined (Wiggs 2004: 3), though this itself, presumably or perhaps, is class dependent. They are also relatively 'unstructured' activities without clearly defined start and end points; activities, furthermore, which are not 'compensated' for at other points in the week(end) (Van den Bulck 2004). Children, in other words, it is claimed, are 'increasingly being bombarded with electronic stimulation until lights go out'. 'Go to bed', moreover, 'may no longer mean "go to sleep", but rather "go to your bedroom and amuse yourself until you get so tired that you fall asleep with the video still running"' (Wiggs 2004: 4).

3.8 Certainly, as we have seen, our own data confirmed that televisions and computers were a staple feature or permanent fixture in many children's bedrooms, with important implications for their bedtime routines if not their sleep quantity or quality. Yet the main sources of disturbance and disruption, in these children's eyes at least, had less to do with television or computers, and more to do with siblings, bedroom space and other family members. Technologies, in other words, for these children, were often seen as facilitating sleep compared to those 'uncontrollable' humans who frequently disturbed and disrupted their sleep (Christensen, personal communication) [2].

3.9 Another key issue linking sleep to the changing nature and character of contemporary childhood concerns the fragmentation of family forms, including an increase in divorces, cohabitating, extra-marital births and the growth in stepfamilies and lone parent families (Prout 2005: 24). Again our data pay testimony to these trends, particularly the manner in which children's own sleeping arrangements are indexical of these shifting family forms and the multiple locations within which they are embedded.

3.10 Contemporary processes of globalisation (both economic and cultural) are also, of course, serving to reconfigure childhoods in multiple if not contradictory ways, including simultaneous trends towards a 'common global conception of childhood' and 'a growing recognition of its diversity' (Prout 2005: 34). Inequalities, however, have intensified in the global era, creating 'both greater wealth and more inequality within national economies' for those in the richest parts of the world, whilst the 'world's poorest people are getting poorer' (Prout 2005: 18-20). Again sleep provides another valuable window on to these global inequalities. The fragile, fickle, fateful sleep of children (and adults) in those poor, war-torn, famine-stricken, disease-ridden, parts of the world today, for example, who exist on less than a dollar a day, provides a powerful reminder not simply that sleep is a basic human right, but that poor sleep itself is intimately related to if not a proxy for other forms of deprivation, both material and non-material in kind. This in turn casts a long shadow over contemporary debates, in the affluent Western world, as to whether or not children are getting 'enough' sleep: a debate, that is to say, which rarely includes or extends to children or childhoods in the majority world – see, for example, Punch (2003) on 'childhoods in the majority world'.

3.11 These insights, however, important as they are, merely 'consolidate' existing research agendas within the sociology of childhood. Yet a full and proper sociological engagement with sleep, we wish to argue, takes us 'beyond' these conventional concerns or preoccupations, to promising new themes and directions within the sociology of childhood. Writers such as Prout (2005) and Lee (2001), for example, have recently called for new directions in childhood studies which take us far beyond the reproduction of oppositional dichotomies (such as nature-culture, structure-agency, individual-society, being-becoming) in favour of non-dualistic analytical resources. Childhood, for these writers, drawing on the likes of Latour, Deleuze and Guattari for inspiration, is a heterogeneous, complex, hybrid assembly of already 'impure' social, technical and biological elements or entities that is not readily reducible to one or other side of these modernist dualities or dichotomies. This is a theoretical position, in other words, in which childhood is reconceptualised through the destabilised and pluralized language of non-linearity, hybridity, networks and mobilities. As Prout puts it:

Once social life is recognized as heterogeneous then the a priori parcelling out of entities (people, adults, children, bodies, minds, artefacts, animals, plants, architectures etc.) into culture or nature becomes unthinkable. Social phenomena must be comprehended as complex entities in which a medley of culture and nature is given as a condition of their possibility. There are no more pure entities, only hybrids that Latour refers to as 'quasi-subjects' and 'quasi-objects' (2005: 81).

3.12 The Deleuzo-Guattarian notion of assemblages is particularly useful here, itself underlining the heterogeneity of the world. The world, from this perspective, including its human and animal parts, is seen as a set of 'assemblages constituted from heterogeneous elements' (Prout 2005: 114). These assemblages, which supplement and extend human capacities and capabilities in multiple ways, involve the mobilisation of heterogeneous materials – human, animal, mineral, plant – in networks that are themselves emergent, productive, dynamic, complex and contingent. What we have here then, in effect, is a necessarily 'impure' picture of human life, both adult and child, as a process of 'multiple becomings' (Lee 2001).

3.13 Theorizing children's sleep/sleeping in this way, we venture, provides another powerful illustration of this hybrid, heterogeneous view of life. Like childhood itself, sleep is best conceived in 'impure' terms: a hybrid, complex and contingent product of biological, psychological, social and cultural elements. The doing of children's sleeping, in turn, throws into critical relief a complex series of assemblages, including baby-cot-alarm, parent-child-sleep, body-bed-bedroom and child-techno-toy. Bedrooms, for example, as we have seen, are populated by a variety of mundane artefacts as well toys and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) which children enlist, enrol and orchestrate in a variety of ways. Sleeping, moreover, returning to a point raised earlier, is best seen in terms of networks of actual and virtual relations (Crossley 2004), including both (extended) family and friendship networks. Debates as to whether or not children are getting 'enough' sleep may also be viewed afresh from this perspective in terms of the mobilisation of a variety of discourses that arise from particular assemblages or alliances of interests such as professional-parent-child, state-parent-child or pharmaceutical-professional-child.

3.14 Viewed in this way, then, the hybrid nature of sleep and the heterogeneous assemblages and networks within which children's sleeping is embodied and embedded, powerfully illustrate and underline the need for these new directions in childhood studies.

Researching children's sleep: Remaining questions and challenges

4.1 Despite these promising developments, a number of key questions and challenges remain in researching children's sleep.

4.2 First, getting children to talk may prove difficult at the best of times, but getting them to talk about sleep may be doubly difficult, as we found in our own pilot work. This perhaps is understandable, given the subject matter in question. Sleep, after all, is something of a 'blank' in all our lives. Children, moreover, may regard sleep as an 'uncool' topic to talk about, in the company of their peers at least (preferring instead to boast about staying up), though this contention, of course, requires further investigation.

4.3 Getting children to fill in or record sleep diaries may also prove difficult, as we found to our cost in our own pilot work. There were clear gender differences here, not simply in terms of the fullness of the diary entries, but in terms of completing them at all (girls were better than boys on both counts). Batteries for the audio-recorded version of the sleep diary, moreover, had a nasty habit of disappearing given other more pressing priorities such as the need, as one boy openly confessed, to replace the flat batteries in his Discman. Recruiting parents to help build up a picture of their children's sleep may be one way forward here. But this, of course, harbours its own problems and difficulties, particularly if the object of the exercise is to adopt a child-centred methodology which prioritises children's own voices and perspectives.

4.4 Detailed observational or ethnographic studies of sleep and family life provide another option, but again the practicalities and ethics of doing so weigh heavily in the balance sheet. Participant observation, for example, is a non-starter if it is sleeping we are interested in: a contradiction in terms indeed for any of us, researcher or otherwise. And researchers, of course, cannot sleep with or share beds with those they study compared to other aspects of their lives they can share, be witness to or participate in (e.g. socialising, eating, working). If sleep, moreover, in the Western world at least, is deemed a personal and private matter which only family members or intimate others are party or privy to (cf. Elias' (1978/1939) 'civilising process'), then what right or license does the social scientist have to watch or pry, spy or intrude on the 'secret life' of the dormant body, particularly when sleep itself is a heightened state of embodied vulnerability (cf. Williams 2007). Where do we draw the line? Is nothing sacred? To the extent that the legitimate domain of sociological inquiry is delimited to the 'doing' of sleeping -- i.e. the meanings, methods, motives and management of sleeping (cf. Taylor 1993) -- then things admittedly may be less problematic, but even so, researching sleep may still pose awkward or tricky ethical as well as methodological dilemmas which we have barely begun to acknowledge let alone address.

4.5 These issues in turn map onto a further series of theoretical and methodological challenges or dilemmas for sociologists interested in sleep. First, without in any way wishing to undermine or underplay the importance of subjective data, we must nonetheless confront the fact that people themselves, whether children or adults, may not be the best judges when it comes to either the quantity or the quality of their sleep – if that indeed is what we sociologists wish to study (another moot point). We only ever indirectly access or audit our own sleep. The relationship between subjective and objective measures of sleep quantity or quality, as this suggests, is far from simple or straightforward. Use of watch actigraphy may be useful in this context, but it still only provides a proxy measure of sleep (based on movement in bed) and adds very little in terms of good, rich sociological data. Second, following directly on from this last point, it is really only pre- and post-sleep perspectives, processes and practices that sociologists, in the main, are interested in and can access through the conventional sociological toolkit: something which, wittingly or otherwise, reaffirms rather than challenges the predominant waking concerns of the discipline. A sociology of sleep, indeed, may itself be something of a contradiction in terms. This also begs another awkward or tricky question for any aspiring sociological engagement with sleep: is it sleep in truth we are really interested in, or all the things that surround, inform, induce and influence it? The latter we suspect.

4.6 Researching sleep then, in childhood and adulthood, raises a host of questions and challenges for the sociologist (both theoretical and conceptual, methodological and ethical in kind), which, to date at least, remain largely unanswered and unaddressed.

Concluding remarks

5.1 There are two main conclusions to be drawn from this paper.

5.2 First and foremost, in keeping with sociology in general, sleep is a strangely neglected issue within the sociology of childhood to date: strange, that is to say, because sleep is central to the experience of both childhood and parenting. It is not simply a case of what new light the sociology of sleep can shed on childhood, however, but reciprocally, of what light the sociology of childhood can shed on sleep.

5.3 Children, as our data suggest, are active constructors and negotiators of their sleeping as well as their waking lives within families, including the when, where, what and with whom of sleep. Children indeed painted a rich and detailed picture of the social context of their sleep lives and sleeping arrangements, thereby reinforcing the need to take an embodied and embedded viewpoint on these matters.

5.4 But in forging and reflecting on these links between the newly emerging sociology of sleep and the well established sociology of childhood, we have also highlighted some profitable new lines of inquiry in which the hybrid or 'impure' nature of sleep and sleeping, both in childhood and adulthood, is brought to the fore. Sleeping in childhood, we have argued, is both done and undone in multiple ways through diverse assemblages and networks. We learn to sleep in families and sleeping occurs in complex networks of both actual and virtual social relations (cf. Crossley 2004). Sleeping, as such, is never entirely an isolated affair.

5.5 The other main conclusion concerns the remaining questions and challenges which researching (children's) sleep poses. It is not our intention here, of course, to reinforce past prejudices that children are somehow inherently or intrinsically 'difficult' or 'impossible' to research: far from it. Rather, we simply wish to raise the fact that researching sleep, both in childhood and adulthood, poses a series of theoretical and conceptual, methodological and ethical challenges, many of which remain to be addressed let alone resolved. To the extent indeed that sleep, as an embodied state of vulnerability, is closely bound up with issues of privacy and trust, intimacy and taboo, then questions of intrusiveness loom large, particularly if it is sleep as such rather than the doing of sleeping we are interested in. To the extent, however, that it is the 'doing' of sleeping which provides our problematic, then this at best represents an extension rather than a radical departure from the predominant waking concerns of much sociological research to date.

5.6 Whether or not, of course, the focus should be first and foremost on children's sleep or sleeping as such, or on the status of children and the negotiation of sleeping within families, is another moot point. Whatever one's choice or preference, however, the socially, culturally and historically variable nature of children's sleep and sleeping arrangements within families -- including issues of privacy and trust, intimacy and taboo -- should also of course be borne in mind, both locally and globally.

5.7 Much remains to be done then in resolving these dilemmas and taking these research agendas forward, both theoretically and empirically, in a productive and ethically sensitive fashion. This paper, we hope, is one small step in that direction: a rallying or wake up call, in effect, and a catalyst to future sociological research, dialogue and debate in this hitherto dormant domain.


1Winnicott's (1958) 'object relations' approach also adds a further important temporal dimension into the picture here and provides a potentially fruitful bridge between psychoanalytic and sociological insights into these matters.

2For another important dimension to the sleep-technology-disruption debate, see Heaton et al. (2006) who investigate the sleep disruption experienced by 36 families of technology-dependent children (i.e. children using medical technologies/devices such as artificial nutrition, renal dialysis, assisted ventilation, oxygen therapy).


Thanks to Pia Christensen, Nick Lee, Alan Prout and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on this paper.


BROOKS, L. (2006) So you want them to be happy? The Guardian. 16th September (Family Section): 1-2.

CHRISTENSEN, P.H. (2002) Why more 'quality time' is not on the top of children's lists: The 'qualities of time' for children. Children and Society. 16, 1: 1-12

CHRISTENSEN, P.H., James, A. and Jenks, C. (2000) Home and movement: Children constructing family time, in S. Holloway and G. Valentine (eds.) Children's Geographies: Living, Playing and Transforming Everyday Worlds. London: Routledge.

CROSSLEY, N. (2004) Sleep, habit and reflexive body techniques. Paper presented at 1st ESRC 'Sleep and Society' Seminar Series, 3rd December, University of Warwick.

EKIRCH, R. (2001) The sleep we have lost: pre-industrial slumber in the British Isles. American Historical Review. April: 343-86.

ELIAS, N. (1978/1939) The Civilising Process: The History of Manners Vol I. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

FERBER, R. (1985) Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. London/NY: Dorling Kindersley.

FERBER, R. and Kryger, M. (1995) Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine in the Child. Philadelphia and London: W.B. Saunders Co.

HEATON, J. Noyes, J., Sloper, . and Shah, R. (2006) The experiences of sleep disruption in families with technology-dependent children living at home. Children and Society. 20: 196-208.

JAMES, A., Jencks, C. and Prout, A. (1998) Theorising Childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press.

LEE, N. (2001) Childhood and Society. Buckingham: Open University Press.

MAYALL, B. (1996) Children, Health and the Social Order. Buckingham: Open University Press.

MAYALL, B. (2002) Towards a Sociology for Childhood. Buckingham: Open University Press.

MORAN ELLIS, J. (2005) An exploration of children's sleeping and waking practices: findings from an interdisciplinary study. ESRC 'Sleep and Society' Seminar, 27th June, University of Warwick (http://www.warwick.ac.uk/go/sleepandsociety)

POSTMAN, N. (1983) The Disappearance of Childhood. London: W.H. Allen.

PROUT, A. (2005) The Future of Childhood: Towards the Interdisciplinary Study of Children. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

PROUT, A. (ed.) (2000) The Body, Childhood and Society. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

PUNCH, S. (2003) Childhoods in the majority world. Sociology. 37 (2): 277-95.

SCHWARTZ, B. (1970) Notes on the sociology of sleep. Sociological Quarterly. 11: 485-499.

STEARNS, P.N., Rowland, P and Giarnella, L. (1996) Children's sleep: sketching historical change. Journal of Social History. 30 (2): 345-66.

STEGER, B. and Brunt, L. (eds) (2003) Night-Time and Sleep in Asia and the West: Exploring the Dark Side of Life. London: Routledge Curzon.

STEINBERG, S. and Kincheloe, J. (eds) (1997) Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood. Boulder CO: Westview.

TAYLOR, B. (1993) Unconsciousness and society: the sociology of sleep. International Journal of Politics and Culture. 6: 463-71.

VAN DEN BULCK, J (2004) Television viewing, computer game playing, and Internet use and self-reported time to bed and time out of bed in secondary-school children. Sleep. 27, pt. 1 (Feb): 101-04.

VAN DEN BULCK (2003) Text messaging as a cause of sleep interruption in adolescents, evidence from a cross-sectional study. Journal of Sleep Research. 12, 3 (Sept.): 263.

VAN DER GEEST, S. (2006) Sleeing in Kwahu, Ghana. Medische Anthropologie. 18, 1: 73-86.

WIGGS, L. (2005) Are children getting 'enough' sleep? Paper presented at the 3rd ESRC 'Sleep and Society' Seminar: 27th June, University of Warwick (http://www.warwick.ac.uk/go/sleepandsociety). WIGGS, L. (2007) Are children getting 'enough' sleep? Implications for parents, Sociological Research Online, Volume 12 Issue 5 <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/12/5/13.html>

WIGGS, L. (2004) Children and Sleep (a Report commissioned for Horlick). Oxford: University of Oxford Department of Psychiarty.

WILLIAMS, S.J. (2007) Dangerous/vulnerable bodies: The trials and tribulations of sleep. In C. Shilling (ed.) Embodying Sociology: Retrospect, Progress and Prospects. Oxford: Blackwell.

WILLIAMS, S.J. (2005) Sleep and Society: Sociological Ventures into the (Un)Known. London: Routledge.

WILLIAMS, S.J., Griffiths F.E. and Lowe P. (2004) Sleep: a feasibility study. University of Warwick.

WINNICOTT, D. (1958) Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock.