Early to bed?

Tina Pentland: News Editor

Family-SleepingWhat does “bedtime” mean? Is it a truly restful time—for children and their parents—or is it a time of restlessness and unease? Without a doubt some parents of young children struggle nightly with their offspring at bedtime and, for them, “bedtime” is more like nightmare time. Empirical evidence that irregular bedtimes and disturbed sleep patterns in early childhood can cause behavioural problems throughout childhood, and beyond, may provide some future comfort. Indeed, findings from a longitudinal study undertaken by researchers at University College, London, funded by the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health, indicate that this is the case—in particular, that, in order to promote mental and physical health throughout one’s life, good sleep habits should be instilled at an early age.

For children who do not enjoy regular bedtimes and a truly restful sleep (and their parents too), the good news coming from this study is that the negative effects are reversible—always assuming bad sleep habits are replaced with good ones, of course.

As Yvonne Kelly, the lead author of the study has observed, the absence of good sleep habits and regular bedtimes can induce symptoms similar to jetlag, which are clearly detrimental to children’s healthy development. “We know that early child development has profound influences on health and wellbeing across the life course”, she says. Because causal links between poor, disrupted, and irregular sleep patterns in non-clinical contexts, and behavioural problems in early childhood and adolescence have so far been difficult to prove, the study was designed specifically to investigate the following research questions: Are (disrupted) bedtime schedules associated with behavioural problems? Do the problems build up over time? And can changes in bedtime schedules be linked to changes in behaviour?

The data for the study, published in the Journal Pediatrics, came from the Millennium Cohort Study (UK), and was used to analyse the bedtime and sleep habits of more than 10,000 children at ages three, five, and seven. Additional data included in the analysis were behavioural scores provided by the children’s parents and their teachers. The strong finding was that children with irregular bedtimes had significantly more behavioural difficulties—for example, hyperactivity, difficulties with peer relationships, and emotional problems. Moreover, the children’s behavioural problems, and the associated behavioural scores, worsened significantly over time if regular bedtimes were not introduced, or changes made to sleep schedules. On the other hand, if regular bedtime schedules were introduced, and sleep habits improved, the behavioural difficulties lessened.

Support for this finding (if any is needed) comes from an additional finding that the behavioural scores of older children in the study, those aged between five and seven, whose bedtime schedules changed in the opposite direction (that is, from regular to irregular), actually worsened.  An unfortunate further twist in the study’s findings is a link between irregular bedtimes and social disadvantage. The strong message here is that early intervention is imperative, both to reverse the negative effects of irregular bedtimes and to prevent them impacting in later life.