Do your kids get to bed at the same hour every night? Families are engaged in many different activities which can disrupt regular routines and get in the way of a consistent bedtime. A small minority of children sometimes or never to go sleep at a regular hour – but they pay the consequences the next day, research shows.
Kids need a regular bedtime in order to learn and function appropriately during the day. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, which followed more than 10,000 children in the United Kingdom, found that children without a regular bedtime by age seven tended to have more behavioral problems both at school and at home.
The study, led by Dr. Yvonne Kelly, epidemiologist at University College of London, England, used data from a long-term study of babies born in the UK from 2000-2002. Parents were regularly surveyed about their children’s sleep and behavioral problems. Close to 20% of parents of three-year-olds said their child sometimes or never went to bed at a consistent time. That number fell to 9% of five-year-olds and 8% of seven-year-olds.
Parents also filled out an assessment of behavioral problems, such as acting unhappy, getting into fights or being inconsiderate. The assessment was scored on a scale from 0 to 40, with higher scores indicating more behavior problems. Seven-year-olds without a regular bedtime rated an average of 8.5 on the behavior scale, compared to 6.3-6.9 for children who regularly were in bed before 9 p.m.
However, the good news is that these findings are reversible. When children with irregular bedtimes went to having a regular bedtime on the next survey, their behavior scores went up. This shows that when parents make small, positive changes to daily routines, they can strongly affect their child’s behavior.
Of course, there are many factors other than bedtime that affect a child’s mood and behavior. Still, a regular bedtime routine with stories, kisses and other nurturing activities ends off the child’s day on a calm, positive note and sets the stage for a productive following day. Parents need to realize the importance of making bedtime routines a priority, even with conflicting schedule demands. Think twice about going out for an evening activity if it means the children will be up well past their usual bedtime. Don’t overschedule your child with too many after school activities, and reserve the evening hours for calm, quiet family time.
A regular bedtime may is also important for the cognitive development of young children, researchers found.
Dr. Yvonne Kelly’s research team also found that girls — but not boys — who didn’t have a regular bedtime at age 7 had slightly but significantly lower scores for reading, math, and spatial abilities. The results, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, found that lack of a regular bedtime had a cumulative effect. Both boys and girls who never had a regular bedtime since age 3 had lower cognitive scores compared to children who always had regular bedtimes.
Not having a regular schedule for bedtime “could have important ramifications, as when sleep is restricted or disrupted symptoms that reflect a reduced capacity for plastic change [in the brain] and/or disrupted circadian rhythms follow, including cognitive impairment and lack of concentration,” the study authors wrote.
The study noted that “early child development has profound influences on health and well-being across the life course.” Therefore, when a child’s sleep is reduced or disrupted in the early years, especially at key points of development, it can have a significant impact on the child’s health throughout life.
Looking just at age 7, not having a regular bedtime was associated with significantly lower scores for reading (beta -0.22), math (beta -0.26), and spatial abilities (beta -0.15) among girls in a fully adjusted model. There were no significant relationships among boys.
Not having a regular bedtime at age 3, however, was associated with lower cognitive scores at age 7 for both girls and boys: reading (beta -0.10 for girls and -0.20 for boys), math (beta -0.16 and -0.11), and spatial abilities (beta -0.13 and -0.16).
An irregular bedtime at age 5 was associated only with lower scores for reading among girls (beta -0.15) and for math among boys (beta -0.14).
Not going to bed at the same time each night at multiple ages was associated with even greater effects on cognition.
Among girls, those who did not have a regular bedtime at ages 3, 5, and 7 had significantly lower scores for reading (beta -0.36), math (beta -0.51), and spatial abilities (beta -0.40) at age 7.
And among boys, those who did not have a regular bedtime at any two of those ages had significantly lower scores for reading (beta -0.28), math (beta -0.22), and spatial abilities (beta -0.26) at age 7.
Inconsistent bedtime could be a symptom of an overall chaotic family life, and it is this, rather than the disrupted sleep itself, impacts a child’s cognitive development, the authors pointed out. However, the study authors found that inconsistent bedtimes were linked to impaired cognitive performance, even without other markers of a stressful family environment.
Those markers included parental employment, parental views of the amount of time spent with the child, attendance at a breakfast club or after-school club, any other childcare, whether the child was read to or told stories, TV time rules, whether there was more than one child in the bedroom, bed wetting, and the presence of a TV in the bedroom.
“Thus,” the researchers wrote, “our results suggest that having a regular bedtime is important alongside other aspects of family circumstances.”