Talking To Children As Part Of A Bedtime Routine: It’s A Good Thing

Over the past few weeks, I’ve focused on the sleep epidemic of childhood: kids aren’t getting enough sleep (click here to learn more), and lack of sleep is associated with all kinds of later health and behavioral problems, including risk for fat gain and eventual type 2 diabetes (click here for recent evidence). In my last post on sleep, I mentioned the importance of finding your own effective bedtime routine (click here for my take on this) because it is often the transition to sleep that helps a child settle in properly. A paper (check out the abstract here) in the Journal of Family Psychology suggests that talk — yes, talk — is one key ingredient to include in your child’s bedtime routine.jfamilypsychology

Okay, that may sound funny, but these days lives are hectic and there are lots of distractions for both parents and kids (such as TV, computers, and phones). We may say we have bedtime routines but, let’s face it, unless they are used consistently (meaning pretty much night after night) they really aren’t routines. This recent study used a longitudinal design (click here to learn why that’s informative)  to study over 4,000 children (and their parents) at 3 years of age and again at 5 years of age. Parents were asked at the 3-year-old visit about their child’s bedtime routine – did they use a routine and, if so, what did they do?  The researchers then coded their answers to reflect if the bedtime routine was “language-based” – simply put, did it involve talking to their child? Examples of language-based routines included: reading a book, telling stories, playing a verbal game, praying, and singing. The only factor of interest was whether the parents used language as part of the routine.

Only slightly more than half of the parents (56%) reported using a language-based bedtime routine. The results?

  • Their kids had significantly longer sleep two years later at the age 5 visit
  • Their kids had more advanced vocabulary scores two years later at the age 5 visit

We are trained as scientists to say that this kind of study cannot prove “causation”  because the researchers simply observed what parents reported and how it predicted later outcomes. But the researchers were able to statistically control for a number of other factors, and holding those steady, the results held up just fine. They speculate that language-based bedtime routines may help kids feel safe and secure before transitioning to sleep — and as an added benefit may stimulate cognitive development.

As I’ve suggested before, I’m becoming less and less interested in the debate about sleep methods and more and more intrigued by the ways in which parents develop their own unique bedtime routines that help their children transition toward sleep. These days, anything that helps kids get the amount of sleep they need is a very, very good thing.

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