10/21/2013 10:10 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Consistency May Be the 'Secret Sauce'

Consistency may be the "secret sauce" in parenthood, aiding in anything from helping children survive temper tantrums to helping your child eat more diverse foods. Providing consistent expectations and daily routines may be the very special thing we do that allows our children to thrive. Like most challenges in life, talking about and identifying the need for consistency is easy; implementing it throughout our daily lives is much more of a challenge. Finding and securing a consistent bedtime is one place where this "secret sauce" may really work. New data on sleep patterns for young children drives this point home. Getting your children to bed at the same time each night is critical.

A new study published in Pediatrics evaluated data from over 10,000 children in the UK. As a part of a larger study (UK Millennium Cohort Study), researchers collected bedtime data at age 3, 5, and 7 years for children. They found children with non-regular bedtimes had more behavioral difficulties. Further, as children progressed through childhood, there was incremental worsening in children's behavior scores as they were exposed to more and more inconsistent bedtimes.

Behavior And Children's Sleep:
  • Sleep schedules are clearly shaped by many influences -- a family's routine, their activities, their employment, their dinnertime and their socioeconomic situation can all impact what time children get to bed each night. In the Pediatrics study, researchers found that children without regular bedtimes and those with late bedtimes (after 9 p.m.) had more socially disadvantaged situations -- i.e., they were more likely to be from the poorest homes, have parents without advanced school degrees and have mothers with poor mental health. Children with late or inconsistent bedtimes were also more likely to skip breakfast, not have stories read to them and have a TV in their bedroom compared with their peers.
  • Lack of sleep influences behavior. It's certainly well-established that sleep deprivation makes it challenging for children to function, regulate their mood and their temper. Our children clearly play this scientific fact out for us when we stretch them!
  • Poor sleep and behavior: chicken or the egg? Research has not entirely teased out the relationship with fractured or challenged sleep -- is it that poor sleep leads to worse behavior, or children with behavior challenges also have a difficult time sleeping? Lots of variables at play here.
  • Bedtime inconsistency can disrupt circadian rhythm and can make children more sleep-deprived (less sleep in total is often observed in children who go to bed at different times each night).

Pediatrics Study on Bedtime Consistency & Behavior Challenges
Over 10,000 children were tracked from 9 months of age up to age 7 years. Children with diagnosed ADHD, autism or Asperger syndrome were excluded from the study.

  • Method: Researchers charted children's bedtime (as reported by their family) and behavior scores from a mother's report and teacher's report based on what time they went to bed. Researchers used the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) at age 7. Bedtimes were reported at 30 minute intervals (before 7:30 p.m., between 7:30 and 8 p.m. up until 9:00 p.m. or later) throughout childhood (age 3, 5 and 7 years). Parents could also report not having a regular bedtime.
  • Results: children without regular bedtimes had more behavior problems as indicated by both mother's and teacher's reports on the SDQ.
  • Dose dependent response: the data from the study found that the worse the consistency in bedtime routine, the worse the behavioral scores for children at age 7 years. For example, there was a doubling in the magnitude of effect for each increase in exposure to nonregular bedtimes. Basically, the more consistent you are with bedtimes, the less likely your child will have behavioral problems. And the good news: the better you make bedtime consistency as time goes on, the better the behavioral outcomes will potentially be.
  • Reversible: if routines improved around bedtime, behaviors improved too. For children who went from not having regular bedtimes to having more consistent bedtimes over the years, researchers saw improvements in behavioral scores as children aged. Researchers wrote, "For children who changed from not having regular bedtimes to having them there were improvements in behavioral scores, and for children who changed from having to not having regular bedtimes, there is some evidence for a worsening in behavior. The size of the effect was non-trivial."
Tips For Improving Your Sleep Routine:
  • Setting regular bedtime early in childhood is important. From the very beginning of infancy (at 1-2 months of age) we give our children the chance to learn to fall asleep on their own and start to expect a routine or pattern around bedtime. As they move through toddlerhood and young childhood, we want to set them up for success with the same bedtime each and every night. This is just another place where consistency is essential.
  • Without a reliable and regular bedtime routine, children may disrupt natural circadian rhythms. In addition, sleep deprivation is more likely in children whose bedtimes move all around. Pick a time that works for your family (7:30, 8:00, or 8:30 p.m.) for bedtime and do your best to stick to it every day of the week.
  • No TV in bedroom. Screen time and TV viewing before bed certainly disrupt your child's ability to fall asleep. Devices like smartphones and tablets will also make it harder for children to fall asleep. Although up to 30-40% of young children have TVs in their bedrooms in the U.S., we have to work to break the habit (from the very beginning) of letting children sleep with screens.
  • Most children under age 12 naturally get tired around 8 p.m.. That natural rise in melatonin, the hormone that allows our brains to chill-out and drift off to sleep, is typically bounding around 8 p.m. until children enter puberty. Use the melatonin spike to your advantage and set bedtime around 8 p.m. if you can. The use of natural cues like winding down activities (reading), bath, and blocking out light also help children establish a daily bedtime.

Secret sauce, see?