14th October 2013 -- Researchers from UCL (University College London) have found that children with irregular bedtimes are more likely to have behavioural difficulties, including hyperactivity, conduct problems and emotional difficulties.
The large-scale study found that irregular bedtimes could disrupt natural body rhythms and cause sleep deprivation, undermining brain development and the ability to regulate certain behaviours.
Professor Yvonne Kelly from UCL says in a press release: "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.
"We know that early child development has profound influences on health and wellbeing across the life course. It follows that disruptions to sleep, especially if they occur at key times in development, could have important lifelong impacts on health."
Researchers collected term-time bedtime data from 10,230 children at the age of 3, 5 and 7 years, as well as incorporating reports from the children’s mothers and teachers on behavioural problems. Questions were not asked about weekend bedtimes.
The study found a clear clinical and statistically significant link between bedtimes and behaviour.
As children progressed through early childhood without a regular bedtime, their behavioural scores - including hyperactivity, conduct problems, problems with peers and emotional difficulties - worsened. However, children who switched to a more regular bedtime had clear improvements in their behaviour.
Professor Kelly says:"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.
"But our findings suggest the effects are reversible. For example, children who change from not having to having regular bedtimes show improvements in their behaviour."
Irregular bedtimes were most common at the age of 3, when around 1 in 5 children 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. Children whose bedtimes were irregular or who went to bed after 9 pm came from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and this was factored into the study findings.
Professor Kelly told us via e-mail that because the effects of inconsistent bedtimes are reversible, questions about bedtimes could be built into routine health consultations. This could prove important for early childhood development and subsequent health.
However, she admits modern life can interfere with bedtime routines: "It can be tough to get into routines around bedtimes as there are so many demands on ‘family time’ – children tend to participate in multiple extracurricular activities, and parents often find themselves working long and/or unsociable hours. There are also lots of distractions e.g. screen use – mobile devices, TV etc, and we know that screen time close to bedtime interferes with the body’s ability to sleep."
One of the study's conclusions is that policy development is needed to better support families to provide conditions in which young children can flourish.
The study has been published in the journal Pediatrics.
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