The Bedtime Blues
July 17, 2013

The Bedtime Blues

As any parent of a small child can tell you, bedtime can be a challenge. Temper tantrums, multiple pleas for stories or water, and crying jags are the most usual problems. Most of us try to set a regular bedtime for our children, but as the poet Robert Burns once said, “The oft laid plans of mice and men…”

CNN Health reports that it might just be okay to let your small children stay up later, as long as their bedtime is consistent. The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggest that consistent bedtimes are associated with positive performance on a variety of intellectual tests.

“If the child prefers to go to sleep a little bit later, but it’s done regularly, that’s still OK for them, according to the evidence,” said Amanda Sacker, professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London.

More than 11,000 children who were part of the UK Millennium Cohort Study, a nationally representative study of children in the UK, were examined for both bedtimes and standardized test scores. The Cohort followed the children at ages 3, 5, and 7, using regular surveys and home visits.

The children took standardized tests in math, reading and spatial abilities at age seven. The results of all the data collections were controlled for socioeconomic status in addition to other factors such as discipline strategies, reading to children and breakfast routines.

The research team found that, in general, better performance across the board was linked to consistent bedtimes. There were differences in gender, however.

For 7-year-old girls, regardless of socioeconomic background, irregular bedtimes were linked to worse scores on all three intellect measurements. Boys of the same age did not show any effect from irregular bedtimes.

Lower test scores were linked with poor performances for both boys and girls at age 3, but not at age 5.

These results “showed that it wasn’t going to bed late that was affecting child’s development, it was the irregular bedtimes that were linked to poorer developmental scores,” Sacker said.

Bedtimes, regular or irregular, were not associated with poor cognitive test performance for boys or girls when other factors such as socioeconomic status were controlled for. This result surprised the researchers.

They did find that lower income children tended to have irregular bedtimes or went to bed after 9pm. These children were more likely to have mothers with mental issues, or come from poor homes, as well as being less likely to have breakfast and to be read to daily.

The authors admit the study has limitations. The Cohort drew upon a large group of children, but the study still only draws correlations, not causes. Basically, this means that although they see associations between irregular bedtimes and poor scores, they can’t prove the connection yet.

Part of the reason is that the information about bedtimes came from the parents reporting, not from direct observation. The research team also did not look at how long each child slept.

So, the biggest questions left out there for parents are, what constitutes a regular bedtime? Can that bedtime vary by any amount?  The research team doesn’t know.

What they do know is that kids, and parents, can benefit from regular, consistent bedtimes.

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