A consistent bedtime in childhood is just as important as the amount of sleep

Some children resist the idea of going to bed at a set time from a very early age. This can present their parents with a dilemma. Do they persist with a regular bedtime and endure the tears and tantrums, or give in for the sake of peace and quiet and family harmony, allowing the child to stay up until they fall asleep from sheer exhaustion? The latter course may seem easier, but will usually lead to irregular bedtimes. Those parents who persevere with a routine are delivering a number of advantages to their children.

Regular bedtimes usually deliver enough sleep

The demands and distractions of modern life may mean that children are getting less sleep than they used to. According to an article published in the journal ‘Pediatrics,’ a study of the recommended and recorded sleep times for children shows that actual sleep times declined by an average of 0.73 minutes per year between 1897 and 2009, a total of about 1 hour 22 minutes.

Yet there is no one-size-fits-all number when it comes to the hours of sleep needed by growing bodies and brains, and some children will need more sleep than others. By observing your child’s behavior at home and paying attention to reports from school, it should be possible to determine how much sleep they really need and establish a set bedtime that will provide it.

Regular bedtimes set children’s internal clocks

Human beings learn to develop something called a circadian rhythm as they develop and mature. This puts their biological clock, their nervous system’s cycle of wakeful alertness and drowsy relaxation, in tune with the daily rotation of the earth on its axis and the sequence of natural light and darkness. A normal circadian rhythm is important for good health, and abnormal rhythms have been linked to complications such as obesity, depression, diabetes and bipolar disorder. 

Babies begin to acquire a circadian rhythm during the first few months of their life, and setting and maintaining a regular bedtime promotes its development. Although you can’t make your child go to sleep, a set bedtime helps them to learn how to fall asleep more quickly.

Regular bedtimes assist childhood development

As well as helping with physical health, it appears that regular bedtimes have a beneficial effect on brain development in children. A recent study published in the British ‘Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health’ concluded that having consistent bedtimes in early childhood is related to higher performances in reading, math and spatial abilities. The conclusions are based on the consistency of bedtimes rather than the actual amount of sleep.

Regular bedtimes reduce behavioral problems

Data from the same study of children’s bedtimes also indicated that children with non-regular bedtimes had more behavioral difficulties. What is more, children’s behavior, as rated by both mothers and teachers, became worse with each year that irregular bedtimes continued. The behavior of children who changed from non-regular to regular bedtimes was observed to improve significantly. This reaffirms the belief that setting limits actually reduces stress in children rather than the opposite, and helps them with their first steps in learning self-control.

Benefits of bedtime routines

Along with a consistent time for going to bed, it is important to establish a regular bedtime routine for children, signaling that it is time to wind down and prepare for sleep. Stimulating activities involving lots of movement or excitement (and this includes TV and computer games) should be shunned in favor of a bath and a bedtime story. Making this the best part of the day, with lots of parental attention and cuddles, should help to make bedtime eagerly anticipated.

Providing regular bedtimes is a significant part of part of being a good parent. It has been scientifically proven that a regular bedtime in childhood, not just the amount of sleep a child is getting, is important for physical, mental and behavioral outcomes, and can impact on lifelong health. The fact that it helps parents too, by delivering a few well-deserved evening hours of adult relaxation, is the icing on the cake.