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 calm.
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:
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 problems in very young children are associated with negative effects on cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social development:
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.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™