Regular bedtimes seem to be a thing of the past for far too many children these days. They sleep irregularly late and are late in the morning next day to school. They stay up to watch television or are on gadgets and arrive at school late and grumpy. And they leave home sans breakfast! Reading a good bedtime story and tucking the child to bed – a staple of yesteryears seems to be lost.
By and large, sleep deprivation causes moodier and/or a shorter temper and normal physiological processes are not that finely tuned even in adults. Hence, it is not surprising that it has a greater impact on children.
This can get worse with young children who do not go to bed at the same time each night. A research study that was done with mothers and a teacher of 7-year olds reveals that children with inconsistent bedtimes are more hyperactive than their peers who are better rested with regular bedtime.
The longer irregular bedtimes persisted, the child's behavior tends to get worse over time – but noticeably improved when they switched to a scheduled bedtime.
A child requires at least eight to nine hours of sleep every night. That should be the goal, though not always possible. Young children with inconsistent bedtime experience something like a jet-lag. If a child goes to bed at different times, at 7 o'clock one night, 9 o'clock the next, 8 o'clock the next and 10 o'clock the next, then this can induce a jet-lag effect on the child, which in turn makes it really difficult to regulate behavior. Such irregular bedtimes can have an impact on the child than a late bedtime. As a professor of epidemiology and public health puts it, 'Not having fixed bedtimes, accompanied by 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'.
Having an irregular sleep schedule had the greatest effect on a child's behavior, but kids with later bedtimes also tended to behave worse.
In the US, almost 20 % of 3-year –olds have no regular bedtime compared to 9.1 % of 5-year-olds and 8. 2 % 7-year-olds. And children with a regular bedtime, whether early or late, have fewer behavioral problems.
While kids would say that they are not tired, they typically act it out – by being hyperactive. Erratic bedtimes have the strongest influence on children's hyperactivity levels, as judged by their mothers and teachers.
And lack of sleep often shows up in the child's school performance, eating habits and other behavioral issues. They start hitting people and acting out, and do not get along with peers and become emotionally withdrawn. Hence, a regular bedtime schedule is not only unquestionably helpful for patents, but even more so for the child.
What could be the reasons for children with irregular bedtimes?
It could be attributed to the parent's lifestyle. Parents could be working long hours. It could be that the child is resistant to go to sleep early. Chaotic and hectic family relationships and environment at home may not be congenial for regular bedtime patterns.
The child and parent could be watching television serials or late night movies before going to sleep. Children with poor routines were seen having a TV in their bedrooms spending longer in front of the TV than children with earlier bedtimes. The parent may be tired and so the household rhythm, including bedtime, slowed.
Regular bedtimes and better behaved children
Although we would think that parents of young children would put their children to bed early and have sometime for themselves, it is not really so. Many don't seem to set any definite bedtime for their children and bedtimes keep changing as the child grows older.
However, studies done with mothers of children aged 3, 5 and 7 with children who had always, usually, sometimes and never a regular bedtime reveal that regular bedtime children are far better behaved than their irregular counterparts. They also exhibited lesser behavioral difficulties.
Keeping consistent daily schedule has big benefits for the child. A regular routine helps the child sleep well. Consistent bedtime is a powerful tool to help children regulate themselves. They develop positive attitude and behaviors. They function successfully at home and in the community. They are able to exhibit emotional control, not hyperactive and are better behaved socially.
Whereas children who go to bed late after 9 pm; had more behavioral problems than those who had earlier lights out. These irregular bedtimes interrupt a child's normal and 24-hour circadian patterns. Therefore, a child's physical and mental functioning is affected.
Sleep is essential for maturation of parts of the brain and children with inconsistent bedtimes often get less and lower quality sleep. This can interfere with their brain development creating effects that can last a life time.
Regular bedtimes contribute to a child's physical and mental health. With irregular bedtimes, various cycles develop between parents and children and poor discipline escalates and dysfunction sets in even at an early stage of a child's life.
This is the time of warmth and connection between parents and children. The parent and child could read together, narrate stories, share the day's happenings and bring a happy end to what might have been an otherwise stressful day.
Children with late bedtimes and non-regular bedtimes get into behavioral difficulties due to the power of the biological clock deep into the brain. This tiny cluster of nerve cells is no bigger than a grain of rice. But it is supersensitive to sunlight and other light coming through the eyes of human beings.
When ambient light starts to fade at twilight, a hormone called melatonin in the brain starts to rise and this causes drowsiness. The level of melatonin rises much earlier in the evening for kids than teenagers and adults. Hence, it is advisable for young children to fall asleep between 7 – 8 pm.
A discerning parent has to start turning off the light around this time and television and other electronic systems, at least half hour before the desired bedtime. This is because the light effect of a television or a computer screen can impact melatonin suppression. And a child should not have any melatonin suppression when he/she is getting ready for bed. When trying to get a child into a bedtime routine, switch all electronics off, give a bath, brush teeth and make it a book time.
Regular bedtime for win-win opportunity
A regular daily bedtime structure can help children develop and establish a very basic kind of self-discipline. It also impacts their health and well-being. Parents who establish a regular bedtime and spend time discussing issues with their children build winning children who are less stressed and happy.
A well-slept child wakes up feeling refreshed and shines better with improved memory skills. Children with sufficient shut-eye have better developed brain. Alert parents start the process of regular bedtime early in their child's life. They let the child know when bedtime is coming and train them to begin their nightly routines – brushing teeth, bathing, putting on night dress and reading a story, dimming lights and allowing the child to have a comfort item – such as a stuffed teddy bear and limiting distractions including television and iPad.
How to set a regular bedtime for children ?
Pick up a bedtime that works for the family. Although it may not work in the beginning, one has to keep trying so that it begins to work. It is better to have the same consistent bedtime even during vacations and weekends. Make sleep a family priority. The child's doctor could be consulted and most are easily treated.
It is imperative that parents recognize sleep problems in their child – look for things like difficulty falling asleep, night time awakenings, snoring and resistant going to bed – other problems including trouble breathing and loud and heavy breathing while sleeping. These sleep problems become evident in day time behavior also such as being sleepy, cranky and overly tired. Parents should be consistent in follow-through.
It is better to discuss the strategy for regular bedtimes with the child – if he/she is old enough, explain the new expectations to the child. Regular bedtime and wake time is essential to align the expectation of the parent and the child. This helps set the internal body clock of the child and also that of the parent.
At the age of two most children spend more time asleep than awake. Overall, a 2-year old spends at least 40 % of his childhood asleep. Sleep then is especially important as it directly affects mental and physical development. However, as a child grows up, there cannot be one ideal bedtime for all children, as sleep needs, lifestyles and napping patterns vary considerably from one child to another.
Given the importance of early childhood development on subsequent health of the child, irregular bedtime may have a knock-on-effect across the life course. A supporting family has to cooperate and establish regular bedtimes for the child so that it could have positive lifelong impact.