You'd think parents of young children would be eager to put their kids to bed and have a few minutes to themselves. Yet a surprising number don't set bedtimes for their children.
According to a 2013 British study published in Pediatrics, a routine helps to get your child ready to sleep, but a consistent bedtime also results in better behavior during the day. When children's bedtimes are delayed or irregular, their behavior is often worse.
A daily scheduled bedtime is an important and powerful tool that helps children regulate themselves, develop positive behaviors, and function successfully at home and in the community. This study, which analyzed sleep times and behavior problems in young children from 3 to 7 years old, found that inconsistent bedtimes have long-term effects on behavior – none of them good.
After tracking the sleep habits and daytime behaviors of children ages 3, 5, and 7, and checking in with families, researchers found that when children's bedtimes were inconsistent, behavior suffered. And the more variable children's bedtime patterns were, the worse the children's behavior became.
Going to bed late was an especially big problem. Children who went to bed after 9pm had more behavioral problems than those who had earlier lights out.
The researchers believe the behavior problems may occur because irregular bedtimes interrupt a child's normal, 24-hour circadian patterns and therefore disrupt a child's physical and mental functioning.
Sleep is also important for the maturation of parts of the brain that are involved in the regulation of behavior. Children who have inconsistent bedtimes often also get less and lower quality sleep, which can interfere with brain development, creating effects that can last into later life.
If you are a parent who has been a little loose and unstructured around bedtime, take heart: The negative effects of irregular bedtimes appear to be reversible. As children's bedtime patterns improved, so did behavior.
There are many reasons why children have irregular bedtimes – from parenting styles, to children's resistance to going to sleep, to chaotic or hectic family environments, and TV and screen media use before sleep. The researchers also call for social and workplace policies that allow parents of young children to be both physically and emotionally available to their children. But even tired parents can find ways to slow the household's rhythms – with a bath, a book, softer voices, lights and screens turned off.
For parents, establishing a consistent time for bed is a win-win opportunity. It gives children a daily structure that can help them develop and helps establish a very basic kind of self-discipline. Bedtime can be a time of warmth and connection between parents and children with bedtime routines and reading together. Parents should discuss bedtime issues with their children's health care providers and if necessary, enlist their help in winning children over to a quiet evening routine.