Are Late Bedtimes Bad for Kids?

Nocturnal by Nature?

If your child seems particularly comfortable keeping late hours, the reasons may run deeper than your household habits. Mary Carskadon, Ph.D., director of the Chronobiology and Sleep Research Laboratory at Bradley Hospital, in Providence, has studied the habits of late-sleeping "night owls" and early-rising "larks" among teenagers. Dr. Carskadon says that younger kids, too, tend toward one schedule or the other. Research suggests that our individual preference for early or late sleep patterns may be partly rooted in our genes, but our environment and age also influence them. (Teenagers are generally more night-owlish than others.)

To tell whether your child has a preference, ask yourself: Does she conk out early, no matter what's going on? Does she seem more energetic and cheerful at certain hours? Even if your child's inner clock seems naturally geared toward later hours, think carefully before you accommodate her preference. Eventually, she'll have to conform to a morning schedule.

Admittedly, my own sons, who attend day-care centers part-time, have already encountered their share of conflicts. They've missed a few early-morning field trips, and they aren't especially tired at naptime. After Cy starts school full-time, we realize, we'll have to abandon our schedule, because we want the boys to continue getting enough sleep.

Some experts say the sooner children make the shift, the better. "The longer this pattern goes on, the more difficulty you'll have changing it," cautions Robert Doekel, M.D., a Birmingham, Alabama, sleep specialist. But others suggest it's all right to postpone the adjustment, as long as you do it gradually. If your child is used to turning in at 10:00 P.M., don't wait until the night before the first day of school to enforce an 8:00 P.M. lights out.

And once they do start getting up early, don't let all the attraction and distraction of modern family life keep them up late. Turn off the lights, pull up the covers, and tuck them in for their ten-plus hours of z's.

For kids (and for everyone else, actually), sleep is not just beauty rest; it promotes energy, wellness, learning, good moods, and peaceful households. "If kids don't get enough sleep," Dr. Carskadon says, "it affects the whole family's quality of life."

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