October 14, 2013
News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Regular Bedtimes May Help Kids Behave
Children with regular bedtimes are likely to be better behaved, too, a new study suggests. The research was part of a large study of 10,000 children in the United Kingdom. Researchers asked parents questions about their children's bedtimes when they were ages 3, 5 and 7. Both parents and teachers were asked about the kids' behavior. Both gave lower ratings for behavior to children who did not have regular bedtimes. The longer the varied bedtimes continued, the greater the behavior problems. But behavior improved for kids who started having regular bedtimes. The study author said not having a regular bedtime may interfere with the body's circadian rhythms. This produces a state similar to jet lag. It may also affect maturing of the brain. Another expert interviewed by HealthDay News said that lack of routine produces anxiety in small children. This can lead to behavior problems. Kids without regular bedtimes also may not fall asleep until they are exhausted. That means they may not get enough sleep. The journal Pediatrics published the study online October 14. HealthDay wrote about it.
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
When it comes to a child's behavior, bedtime matters.
Having a regular bedtime, that is. Researchers in the United Kingdom asked the parents of more than 10,000 children various questions when the children were 3, 5 and 7 years old. The questions included several about bedtime routines and about behavior.
What they found was interesting. Children who didn't have regular bedtime routines during the week were far more likely to have behavior problems. (The researchers didn't ask about weekend bedtimes.) The link was pretty direct. The less likely children were to have regular bedtime routines, the more likely they were to have trouble with their behavior.
The good news was that it was reversible. If parents started getting their children into a better routine, the behavior problems improved.
This actually makes a lot of sense, given what we know about sleep. If you have an erratic sleep schedule, it throws off the circadian rhythms that are important to your body's regulation. If you don't get enough sleep, it causes both physical and psychological stress.
Not only that, scientists believe that sleep is important for the development of parts of the brain that regulate behavior. That suggests that if children don't get enough sleep, it could affect their behavior for a lifetime.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
If you are a parent, make sure that your child has a regular bedtime. It should be a time that allows the child to get at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep at night. It's OK to stay up a bit later on weekends. But changing the schedule a lot can make it harder to keep the routine during the week.
Some other tips to help your child sleep better at night:
- Don't put a TV in your child's bedroom. It's just too tempting to turn it on -- or to stay up later than is healthy.
- Limit your child's TV before bedtime in general. The light from televisions can actually activate the brain, making it harder to fall asleep.
- Have soothing bedtime routines, such as taking a warm bath or shower and reading a book. Doing active or exciting things right before bedtime makes it hard for anyone to fall asleep.
- Create a quiet, dark sleep space for your child. If the dark is scary for him, buy a night-light.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
This study adds to what we know about the importance of sleep and the role it plays in our physical and mental health. And it does more than that. It gives us something concrete we can do to help children develop healthy sleep routines.
It's important that health care professionals remember to ask about bedtime routines both during well-child visits and when talking to parents of children with behavior problems. This study also makes it clear that whenever possible, policies should be in place to help working parents be home when their children need to go to bed.
Children need enough sleep, and regular sleep -- not just to be healthier and better-behaved now, but for a better and more successful future.