Family Matters

Children Sleep Right Through Fire Alarms, Study Shows

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Recently, the super-sensitive smoke alarm near our kitchen started squalling in response to a charred bit of something overcooking in a saucepan. I cringed because my 6-year-old was asleep. A champion snoozer, she never flinched. And now, new research scarily shows she’s no exception.

Being a deep sleeper is really good in terms of her getting uninterrupted z’s, but it would have been really bad had the smoke alarm heralded true danger. It’s not the first time I’ve wondered whether smoke alarms even do any good when it comes to rousing children. Now an Australian study’s got my answer, and it’s a definitive no. (More on You Snooze, You Lose: More Weekend Sleep Cuts Kids’ Obesity Risk)

Researchers at Victoria University in Melbourne concluded that 78% of school-aged children slept through a smoke alarm blaring for 30 seconds. The study, published this month in the journal Fire and Materials, asked 79 families to trip their smoke alarm after their child had been asleep between one to three hours.

The group of 123 children — the average age was 9 — was split in two according to which children had hit puberty. It was an intentional division: plasma melatonin levels — melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone, helps induce sleep — decrease in conjunction with puberty onset. (More on Yawn. Working Moms Awake More Than Dads to Care for Kids at Night)

Parents reported that of the 22% of children who awoke, only half identified the noise as a smoke alarm. And only half of those children knew that smoke alarms mean Get Out Now. Younger kids between the ages of 5 and 10 made up 70% of the study participants; they were likeliest to sleep through the alarm. Just over half of 11-to-15-year-olds, or 56%, slept through the din, but 87% of the younger group did.

It’s not that smoke detectors aren’t helpful; they’ve been used in homes since the 1960s and have certainly saved lives. But it’s a reminder that the people you may be most concerned about in the event of a fire are least likely to even know an emergency is underway.

“Parents should not rely on their children waking to the smoke alarm in the event of a fire and should not assume that they will immediately evacuate if they do wake up to a fire,” says Dorothy Bruck, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychology at Victoria University who researches clinical aspects of sleep/wake behavior. (More on Time.comSmoking Ban at NYC Apartments? Health Experts Would Likely Approve)

Many fire departments are more than happy to make home visits — ours in Raleigh, N.C., did — to help homeowners formulate an evacuation plan. Still, Bruck’s research is a reminder that a plan is no good if it depends on smoke alarms to wake kids up. Parents, consider it a wake-up call.