Many people, both parents and educators, may think that irregular bedtimes for children is not an important issue and that it isn’t necessary for young children to go to sleep at a set time. Children’s irregular bedtimes just go with a more relaxed, flexible attitude about child rearing. Yet, two recent studies show that irregular bedtimes have negative effects both on children’s learning and on their behavior. Both studies were conducted by the same group of researchers and included over ten thousand 3, 5 and 7-year old children. These studies show that when children have regular bedtimes, they do much better.
Effects of Irregular Bedtimes on Children’s Learning
The first study examined whether bedtimes in early childhood, namely at 3, 5 and 7 years, are related to cognitive test scores in 7-year olds. To do this, they looked at the test scores of the 7-year olds in reading, math and spatial abilities. While the results of the study varied for girl and boys, the irregular bedtimes having a more significant negative effect on girls than on boys, the researchers were, nevertheless, able to conclude that, “The consistent nature of bedtimes during early childhood is related to cognitive performance. Given the importance of early childhood development, there may be knock on effects for health throughout life.” (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3812865/pdf/jech-s012-202024.pdf)
The researchers explained why they thought they got the results cited above. There were two reasons. First, irregular bedtimes interfere with the body’s circadian rhythms, its internal clock which regulates body rhythms. Disruption of circadian rhythms can have strong negative effects on daily functioning such as work performance. Secondly, irregular bedtimes can result in not getting enough good quality sleep. This, in turn, affects the brain’s ability to learn, to think and to concentrate.
Another interesting conclusion that they were able to draw from the study was that those 7-year olds who went to bed later (after 9 P.M.) had more negative routines in other areas such as skipping breakfast, watching more than 3 hours a day of TV, having a TV in the bedroom and not being read to each day.
The Effects of Irregular Bedtimes on Children’s Behavior
In the second study, the researchers looked at the effects of irregular bedtimes on children’s behavior. This research was designed to investigate whether bedtime schedules are related to behavior problems, whether the effects of bedtime schedules on behavior build up during early childhood and whether irregular bedtimes are related to changes in behavior. (www.pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/10/09/peds.2013-1906.abstract?sid=9f9aeb7d-4dcb-44fa-9b6f-3b42eee97e65)
Here again, they found that irregular bedtimes have negative effects. These include hyperactivity, poor conduct, social problems with other children and emotional problems. (Note that children with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder were not included in the study.) The researchers compared the effects of irregular bedtimes to jet lag because the symptoms are similar.
They also reported that betimes among 3 to 5-year olds were the most irregular. For 7-year olds, fifty percent of the children had irregular bedtimes while the others had bedtimes between 7:30 and 8:30 P.M. On the positive side, the behavioral problems were reversed once parents set up regular bedtimes for the children. Those 3 to 5-year olds who had irregular bedtimes showed better behavior at 7 years old if their bedtimes became regular. If their bedtimes remained irregular, their behavior became worse.
The Role of Parents
Certainly there are many reasons why young children don’t have regular bedtimes and sleep schedules. For some parents, this is a difficult challenge. They don’t know how to go about it. Others just don’t think it’s important. In addition, many parents work and when they come home, they want time to be with their kids, so the children’s bedtimes fluctuate. Or the parents are so overwhelmed with things to think about and take care of that it’s not always easy to get the kids to bed at a particular hour, especially if it has become a battle.
But the results of these two studies strongly suggest that regular bedtimes are important for a child’s physical, emotional and cognitive growth. Parents need to be made more aware of this and helped to implement it.
If you have ideas about this, I would love to hear from you.