We all know that cranky babies probably just need a nap. And that melting down toddlers should get to the nearest bed, stat. As children get older, sleep issues often express themselves as behavioral problems, which set the kid up for less than ideal days at school, where nap time and space is typically unavailable.
But apparently, additional sleep isn't the only thing that matters. It's all about regular bedtimes. A new study in the journal Pediatrics concluded that inconsistent sleep led to worse behavior no matter the cumulative hours. In other words, kids who don't have a set bedtime struggled more with behavior than those who went to bed at the same time every night.
Good news and bad news, right?
Yvonne Kelly, from University College London's department of UCL Epidemiology & Public Health, wrote in the report that inconsistent bedtimes along with unpredictable lives left kids with similar body and brain responses as those experiencing jet lag.
Kelly's team looked at the sleep times, as well as parent and teacher behavior reports, of 10,000 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds participating in the UK Millennium Cohort Study. What they found was a direct link between bedtime and behavior. They found that irregular bedtimes messed with kids' natural sleep rhythms and disrupted their sleep, affecting brain development. As the kids with irregular bedtimes got older, there were higher reported rates of hyperactivity, problems with friends and emotional difficulties than in those kids who went to bed at the same time most nights.
Though consistency was found to be important at all ages, most parents don't achieve it for the very young. The 3-year-olds in the study had the most inconsistent bedtimes—only 1 in 5 went to bed at the same time every night. But by the time the kids were 7, over half headed off to sleep at a designated time, usually between 7:30 and 8:30 at night. Those who went to bed after 9 p.m. tended to come from less advantaged backgrounds, which was also factored in to the study. It's not clear whether the post-9 o'clock bedtimes were consistent, however.
Parents should establish a time that works for the family—and then stick to it.
So for all the parents panicking about their young kids' sometimes 7:30, sometimes 9:30, and often 11 p.m. on weekend bedtimes, know this: The effects of inconsistent bedtimes can be reversed. All it takes? Consistent bedtimes.
Easier said than done, especially if a child is used to going to bed whenever she wants. But since other research has connected quality sleep with better academic performance, not just better behavior, that makes it even more worth considering.
I know a lot of kids go to bed at later times because one or both parents come home later in the evening from work. But this study doesn't necessarily conclude that those kids' development is screwed. Rather, the takeaway is that parents should establish a time that works for the family—and then stick to it. This allows the growing bodies to sync up with the natural rhythms, which leads to better quality sleep.
Consistent bedtimes are a challenge in my house, especially for my 4-year-old. He shares a room with his older sister, who is something of a night creature and also refuses to go to bed earlier than her older sister, who is almost 13. We've always recognized the importance of consistent bedtimes around here—less so in terms of kids' behavior, though we definitely notice when they've gone to bed much later than usual. Rather, bedtimes are kind of the light at the end of the tunnel for me and their father. What I try to do is get my youngest in bed by 7:30. Most nights, he's out by 8 p.m., which is when I send my older two to bed. They're allowed to read, and though I'd prefer my 8-year-old turn out her light by 8:30, it's usually more toward 9 p.m.