Parents know that bedtime can be one of the most challenging
times of the day, particularly for young children. Babies cry and cling.
Toddlers bargain, stall, and melt down when things don’t go their way. At the
end of a long day, it can be tempting to let bedtime occur whenever and however
it may, letting go of consistency and routine for the sake of peace, quiet, and

Sleepy Toddler

 But a regular bedtime matters. It fosters healthy,
independent sleep in young children. It enables kids to get the amount of sleep
they need on a nightly basis. And new research
suggests that a consistent bedtime matters to children’s cognitive development,
with effects that can last beyond the first few years of life. 

A study out of the United Kingdom indicates
that a lack of consistency at bedtime may have negative consequences for
cognitive development in children by age 7. Scientists at University College
London used data from the Millennium
Cohort Study
, a long-term, large-scale developmental study of 19,000
children in the United Kingdom. For their study on bedtime’s influence on
cognitive development, researchers included data on 11,178 children, all 7
years old. They compared histories of children’s bedtimes at ages 3, 5, and 7
with test scores taken at age 7 in reading, math, and spatial awareness.
Researchers found links between irregular bedtimes and lower test scores: 

  • Irregular
    bedtimes were most common at age 3. At 3 years old, 20% of children went
    to bed at different times nightly. Bedtimes became consistent as children
    aged — by age 7, more than 50% of children had regular bedtimes between
    7:30 and 8:30 p.m.
  • Both
    boys and girls with inconsistent bedtimes at age 3 had lower test scores
    in all three areas — reading, math, and spatial awareness — at age 7
    compared to children with regular bedtimes.
  • Results
    showed a cumulative effect of inconsistency at bedtime on learning, for
    both boys and girls. Girls who had irregular bedtime schedules at 3, 5,
    and 7 had significantly lower scores on all three test subjects. For boys,
    this was the case among those with irregular bedtimes at any two of the
    three ages.
  • That
    both boys and girls with irregular sleep schedules at age 3 scored lower
    on tests at age 7 suggests that the early years of sleep may be especially
    important to cognitive development. 

This study is significant in part because it examines the timing of sleep, not the quantity or
quality of sleep. Consistency is an important aspect of healthy sleep routines
at all ages, helping to strengthen circadian rhythms and ensuring sufficient
time for sleep. This study suggests that consistency during these early,
developmental years is critical, and can have consequences that extend beyond
early childhood. We’ve seen a great deal of evidence in recent years that sleep
in very young children are associated with negative effects on
cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social development: 

  • Sleep
    during the first few years of life may influence language skills. An
    international team of researchers examined
    the links between sleep during the first 2.5 years of life and language
    development up to age 5. They found that children with language delays at
    age 5 had poorer sleep at 6 months and 18 months than those without
    language delays. 
  • A
    large-scale investigation
    revealed that sleep-disordered breathing in children as young as 6 months predicted
    behavioral problems at ages 4 and 7. Problems with behavior included
    hyperactivity, conduct problems, difficulty with peers, and emotional
    difficulties. Sleep-disordered
    is a cluster of symptoms including snoring, breathing
    through the mouth, and apnea. These symptoms are often thought of as
    adult-only problems—but that’s not the case. Children are at risk for
    sleep-disordered breathing, but risk factors for children appear to be
    different than risk factors for adults. 
  • Learning
    deficits associated with poor sleep in young children can last into
    adolescence. Middle-school
    with low academic performance are more likely to have snored
    as children between the ages 2-6 than their higher-performing peers. 

Infants and children up to the age of 3 require
a great deal of sleep, more than 12 hours per day including naps. Sleep is
critical to physical, mental, intellectual and emotional development, all of
which is happening at a breathtaking pace during these early years. As this
latest research indicates, in addition to sleep duration, the timing of sleep
and consistency of young children’s sleep habits also make a difference in
children’s healthy development. By 6 months, infants’ circadian rhythms have
been established and they are physiologically capable of sleeping through the
night. A sleep routine for children this age is not only possible, it’s also
important for long-term development. 

Developing consistent evening routines and regular
bedtimes generally works best when parents start this practice early, giving
children the chance to accept the nighttime schedule as a non-negotiable part
of everyday life. These early-in-life sleep routines aren’t just good for peace
and harmony in the household. They’re also an importance key factor in a
child’s development, performance, and success for years to come.


Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD 
The Sleep Doctor®

The Sleep Doctor’s Diet
Plan:  Lose Weight Through Better Sleep

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