Just 28 per cent of youngsters were woken up by the sound of an alarm in their home in an experiment by Scottish researchers and the fire service.
They said manufacturers should be telling parents of the risk that sleeping children may not hear the alarm.
The University of Dundee study, in collaboration with Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, carried out the experiment on 644 children.
It found children respond better to different tones and frequencies than in standard alarms.
For example, an alarm tested using a lower frequency sound combined with a voice recording woke more than 75 per cent of the children.
The research was featured on the BBC One show Watchdog last night, with the experiments repeated on eight children under the age of ten.
Viewers will see parents test their standard smoke alarms for one minute while their children are asleep, with all but one child oblivious to the noise.
The only child that showed any sign of being woken by the alarm got out of bed to get a teddy before going back to bed and falling asleep. The original study was led by Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, director of the Leverhume Research Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Dundee. He said the results highlighted the need for manufacturers of smoke alarms to put a warning message on their packaging about the risk of children not waking up in the event of fire, even when alarms are triggered.
Prof Nic Daeid said: “Our research has shown that current smoke alarms are not very good at waking up children.
“We would ask manufacturers of existing smoke alarms to alter their packaging so that they reflect the outcomes of our work.
“We have now identified an alarm sound which is much more effective at waking children and our next aim is to develop innovative devices which will link to existing smoke alarms to improve fire safety for children.
“We welcome any and all interest in helping us achieve this aim.”
The Watchdog Live was supervised by fire investigator Dave Coss from Derbyshire Fire and Rescue, who worked with Prof Daied on the Dundee research.
Prof Nic Daied said: “The two things that stand out for me are, first of all, the shock, the genuine shock on the face of the parents when they realise their kids haven’t woken up.
“Secondly, in a fire situation, time matters.”