Bed Time l November/December 2015
Once upon a time … children’s regular bedtime was sacrosanct for many families. Those were the years before we began overscheduling our kids with lessons, athletics, tutors, and increasing amounts of homework, and before the siren call of electronic screens transformed everyone’s life. With so much to do, to see, and to enjoy, something’s gotta give. Typically, it’s the regularity of bedtime. On many days, eight morphs into nine, ten into midnight — despite the research telling us that a regular bedtime plays an important role in our kids’ healthy social and emotional development.
An irregular bedtime — inconsistency from one night to the next — has been found to lead to behavioral difficulties in young children.i Researchers analyzed data from over 10,000 youngsters, collected when the kids were 3, 5 and 7 years old. On measures of hyperactivity, problems with peers, behavioral problems, and emotional difficulties, children without regular school-night bedtimes scored increasingly worse as they got older (based on parent and teacher reports).ii But there’s good news: the negative effects of an irregular bedtime appear to be reversible. When parents made the switch and imposed regular bedtimes on kids who previously had none, youngsters showed definite improvement in behavior. Not surprisingly, the opposite was also found: well-adjusted children with regular bedtimes showed a behavioral decline once irregular bedtimes took over.
Why might consistent bedtime be important? Irregular bedtimes may be harmful by disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythms, which are known to be slow in adapting to schedule changes, at any age. And when irregular bedtime leads to sleep deprivation, children’s physical development, including brain maturation, might suffer. Adequate sleep is believed to be important in the maturation of regions of the brain involved in the regulation of behavior (see Enough Sleep | September/October 2014).
Many parents believe that regular bedtime isn’t important until the little ones start school. After all, does it matter if toddlers and preschoolers sleep later in the morning as a result of getting to bed later than usual the night before? It does seem to matter. Research suggests that the negative effects of irregular bedtime start early and may be cumulative. Because healthy adjustment in middle childhood depends on healthy adjustment in early childhood, regular bedtime is important right from the very start.
i Kelly, Yvonne et al., “Changes in bedtime schedules and behavioral difficulties in 7-year-old children.” Pediatrics. November, (132,5) 2013.
ii The only bedtimes studied were those falling on nights before a school day; weekend bedtimes were not investigated.