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Bedtime Anytime? Get Ready for Trouble

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

When is bedtime at your house for your preschool children? If your answer something like “It depends” then you could be setting your family up for problems. A new study from University College London, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that children whose bedtimes are variable are more likely to be behavior problems for Mom and Dad.

Bedtimes reported by parents of 10,000 English 3-, 5- and 7-year-old children were compared to parents’ and teachers’ reports of children’s behavior. A clear link was found between irregular bedtimes and hyperactivity, conduct disorders, problems getting along with friends, and emotional outbursts. The longer irregular bedtimes persisted and the older children got, the more severe the behavior problems became.

Researchers speculate that variable bedtimes throw off the body’s circadian rhythm, leading to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation disrupts essential brain functions that occur during sleep and interferes with neural development of brain areas needed for behavior regulation.

They found that irregular bedtimes are most common among three-year-olds, when 1 in 5 children go to sleep at different times each night – and when behavior struggles and tantrums are common! By age seven, most children go to bed between 7:30 and 8:30 pm but children still up at 9:00 pm or who continue to go to bed at odd times continue to struggle with behavior.

Every parent knows that children who are overtired or who didn’t get a good night’s sleep are more likely to be irritable and unfocused. Imagine that this is a child’s daily experience. As lead researcher Yvonne Kelly notes, “Not having fixed bedtimes, accompanied by a constant sense of flux, induces a state of body and mind akin to jet lag.”

It’s obvious that irregular bedtimes might have daytime consequences.

What can you do?

  1. Set a bedtime and stick to it. Don’t let small children stay up to watch television, so finish a game, or participate in evening activities. Get things wrapped up in time for the same bedtime every night.
  2. Maintain your child’s bedtime even on weekends and vacations. Goodness knows, you want your child to be sweet when she’s around you all day. And just as jetlag lingers for a day or two, a late-night on the weekend may have repercussions for your child’s learning later in the week.
  3. Make certain the sleeping arrangements provided to your child work for him. If older or younger children disrupt your child’s sleep, take steps to adjust the sleeping situation.
  4. Avoid letting your child watch television or play with computers or cellphones in bed. The light from these screens disrupts the release of the sleep hormone melatonin and can lead to sleep deprivation.
  5. If you allow your child to read in bed, have a firm “lights out” limit. Yes, we want our children to enjoy reading. But they need their sleep too.

The good news, according to the study, is that behavior problems caused by irregular bedtimes are reversible. Once children start going to bed at a the same time each night, they became better behaved during the day.

Having trouble with your child’s behavior? Look at her bedtime. If it’s variable, just setting a more regular sleep schedule may make a difference.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.