Babies stubbornly follow their own schedule, but kids from toddlerhood onward can benefit enormously from reasonably early and consistent bedtime routines. In fact, a large British study just found that late and erratic bedtimes are bed for children's cognitive function.
Late and inconsistent bedtimes: What the study says
A research team led by Prof Amanda Sacker from University College London looked into children's sleep patterns and analyzed how they affected cognitive function. The study included more than 11,000 UK children. Prof Sacker and her team collected information on the children's sleep patterns at ages three, five and seven and then looked at how well they were learning. The team found that kids who went to bed later than 9pm and those who had no regular bedtime at all scored worse on reading and math. About half of the study subjects had a regular bedtime between 7.30 and 8.30 pm.
Those who never had a regular bedtime at all scored worse than their peers, and the impact of poor sleeping patterns appeared to be cumulative. The study also found that late or irregular bedtimes had more of an impact on girls than on boys. The study certainly caught my attention. Though we have a consistent bedtime routine at our house, my children have always gone to bed at varying times, depending on how the rest of the day worked out. Is this affecting them badly? I don't think so.
My daughter is a full two grade levels ahead in math and is a voracious reader, and my son who is four is just beginning to read. I think we are doing fine, but that could be because we don't have a regular wake up time either, and my kids always get as much sleep as they need. Now, the study team also found that it was kids from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds who had late or erratic bedtimes. These kids tended to read less at home, and watched more TV often in their own bedroom. Prof Sacker says that she and her colleagues took these findings into account. After controlling for them, kids who went to bed late or didn't have a regular bedtime still performed less well than their peers. Prof Sacker's conclusion is that "the take-home message is really that routines really do seem to be important for children. Establishing a good bedtime routine early in childhood is probably best, but it's never too late."
So, how do you establish a good bedtime routine?
All kinds of things can get in the way of a good bedtime routine including homework, birthdays, guests, good books your kids just don't want to put down, and just a plain denial of tiredness and refusal to go to bed. A firm approach to discipline helps you get your children into bed without a struggle, but a good bedtime routine should always feel familiar and safe too. Many experts recommend that you and your kids start winding down an hour before bedtime. Turn the TV and computer off at this time, or just use your electronic devices to play a nice, calming type of music.
Play a game together, do some quiet drawing, or engage in some yoga. You could also go through the house and tidy up toys and other things, and lay out everything you are going to need for the next morning clothes, and for older kids, school books and a packed lunch. Then, have your kids have a bath or shower and brush their teeth. Get PJs on. Take them to bed, ensuring that their bedroom is tidy and peaceful enough to create a calm sleep environment.
Read a book or several together, sing songs if desired, and then kiss your kids good night and leave. If you haven't been doing this, your kids will definitely come out of bed and whine once you start. I really like Supernanny Jo Frost's "stay in bed" technique to cope with this. When a child comes out of bed, remain calm and simply say "it's bedtime, darling". Take the child back to bed, and leave again. The second time, you say nothing but "bedtime" when you return your child to bed, and the third and any subsequent time, say nothing at all.
The key is not to engage in a conversation with your child, and not to lose your cool in the face of whining. Does your child yell, cry loudly, or even call your names, kick, and similar behaviors? This is not the time for a time-out you don't want to get distracted from bedtime. Your child may need to be placed back in bed many times during the first night, but things will get better pretty soon. Sleep matters to you, too! To find out more, read: Does the quality of your sleep affect your fertility?