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When Bedtime is Flexible Preschoolers Suffer

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

An old nursery rhyme ends, “Are your children in their beds? For now it’s eight o’clock!” A new study demonstrates that the advice implied in this rhyme is spot-on. A regular bedtime is important in the preschool years especially, for good brain development.

In this study, the family routines of 11,000 preschoolers evaluated. The researchers wanted to know if bedtime, including the time a child goes to bed and how consistent the daily bedtime is, has an effect on later school performance. They looked at children’s bedtimes at three ages: 3, 5 and 7 years old.

The researchers found that for three-year-olds, bedtimes tend to be irregular, with 1 in 5 children going to bed at different times from night to night. In addition, irregular bedtimes at age three was linked to later poorer ability in math and reading in school. The effect of inconsistent bedtime at age 5 and 7 didn’t have so great an effect, indicating that regular bedtimes are most important for younger children.

This is unexpected. We parents tend to think that regular bedtimes are most important once children start school. We tend to be more casual about bedtimes for three-year-olds, especially since children this age often resist going to bed and may get up several times even after they’ve been put down to sleep.

If bedtime is haphazard at your house it’s time to make a change. Here’s how.

  1. Decide on a bedtime. Remember that preschool children need 11 to 14 hours of sleep each night, not including daytime naps. If your family has a regular wake-up time, dictated by the time needed to get out the door in the morning, count back from that time to find a good bedtime.
  2. Allow for the bedtime routine. Now that you’ve got the time your child should be in bed, falling asleep, figure out how much time it usually takes to get him there. Notice how long it usually takes to do a bath, brush teeth, get pajamas on, and read a story. Include in this typical timespan whatever is dedicated to “two minutes more” playtime, to tantrums pitched on the way to bed, and to wanderings out of bed after the child’s door is closed. All of this time is added onto the bedtime you already decided on.
  3. Get your child to bed on time. This may mean your whole family settles down earlier than they have been, so the preschooler can get his sleep. Be consistent. Stick with the regular bedtime every night without fail. It may take several days for the new habits to establish themselves, so give yourself and your child time.
  4. Enjoy your evening! Having a consistent bedtime is good for your preschool child, but it’s also good for you. You might find that you are more relaxed and even sleep better once some of the late-night shenanigans with your child are a thing of the past.

Tonight is a good night to start getting things back on track. Your child’s later school success may depend on it.

© 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.