Children who have irregular bedtimes are more likely to exhibit behavioural problems, according to new British research.
A lack of good bedtime routine can disrupt the body’s natural rhythms, causing sleep deprivation, leading to impaired brain development and dysfunctional behaviour.
“A constant sense of flux induces a state of body and mind akin to jet lag and this matters for healthy development and daily functioning,” said study author professor Yvonne Kelly in a statement.
The study looked at sleep habits of 10,000 children aged 3, 5 and 7 years old collected from the UK Millennium Cohort Study and found a statistically significant link between bedtimes and behaviour.
Professor Kelly said: “What we’ve shown is that these effects build up incrementally over childhood, so that children who always had irregular bedtimes were worse off than those children who did have a regular bedtime at one or two of the ages when they were surveyed.”
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics found one in five 3-year-olds went to bed at varying times. However, by the age of 7, more than half the children went to bed regularly between 7.30 and 8.30 pm.
In her study for Epidemiology & Public Health at UCL Kelly discovered that if bedtimes became consistent the effects were reversible with clear improvements in the children’s behaviour. Therefore, she recommends that health care providers check for sleep disruptions as part of routine health care visits.
“Given the importance of early childhood development on subsequent health, there may be knock-on effects across the life course.”
NHS sleep trainer at Millpond Sleep clinic, Mandy Gurney agreed that bedtime differences of between one and two hours have “a huge impact” on children’s behaviour.
“Children who don’t sleep well are much more likely to exhibit things like biting, hitting, kicking and punching than children who do sleep well,” she said.
Crucial to enough sleep is a good bedtime routine. Gurney said if parents don’t take the time to wind children down with a calm routine, the child may get a second wind while they’re being prepared for bed and don’t seem tired.
Getting enough exercise, stopping screen time half-an-hour before bed, and restricting caffeine and sugar to daytime is also essential for a child getting to sleep.
Previous research has shown that children who go to sleep after 9 p.m. suffer from less sleep than those who go to bed earlier.
The importance of sleep on child development has only been understood in the last 10 years through the study of how brain activity impacts learning and health from MRI scanning.
Gurney trains nurses to recognise the link between behavioural issues in children and poor sleep habits.
“People are scared to ask about sleep if there’s a problem, they don’t know what to do with it. You haven’t got the time to support that person to resolve the issue. That’s why we do the training,” Gurney said.
Netmums.com in association with the Institute of Health Visiting (IHV) did a survey with 800 health visitors on their knowledge about sleep.
Maggie Fisher, National Advisor for Sleep for the IHV said that while health visitors faced children’s sleep issues from parents on a regular basis, very few had the appropriate training to deal with it.