Having a set bedtime isn’t just about keeping parents sane, and making it easier to drag your kids out of bed in the morning: It’s actually good for kids’ brains, say scientists at the University College London. And as anyone who has watched Mary Poppins or “Supernanny” knows, you can trust British people when it comes to advice about kids.
The study, which confirms what literally every schoolteacher already knew, was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Medicine. Researchers looked at the sleep habits of over 11,000 British children at the ages of three, five, and seven.
Scientists found that three-year-olds who didn’t have a regular bedtime had lower cognitive scores than children who had a set bedtime every night. The scores were lower for both girls and boys across the board: in reading, math, and spatial skills.
Here’s where things get a little wonky: the researchers found that at age seven, girls without a set bedtime had “significantly” lower scores in reading, math, and spatial skills. The same wasn’t found of boys.
This difference is really surprising, because my daughters and my son are equally deranged when they’re sleep-deprived.
Researchers did find that a cumulative effect was apparent in both boys and girls: kids who hadn’t had a regular bedtime at multiple ages: say, age three and five, or age five and seven, had lower scores.
Irregular bedtimes were most common at the age of 3, when around one in five children went to bed at varying times because three-year-olds are cray-cray. By the age of 7, more than half the children went to bed regularly between 7.30 and 8.30 pm. Children whose bedtimes were irregular or who went to bed after 9 pm came from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds, the findings showed.
The study authors said that irregular bedtimes could disrupt natural body rhythms and cause sleep deprivation, undermining the plasticity of the brain and the ability to acquire and retain information.
“Sleep is the price we pay for plasticity on the prior day and the investment needed to allow learning fresh the next day,” said senior author Amanda Sacker. “Early child development has profound influences on health and wellbeing across the life course. Therefore, reduced or disrupted sleep, especially if it occurs at key times in development, could have important impacts on health throughout life.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics also says that keeping a consistent bedtime makes bedtime easier overall, because it helps your child know what to expect.
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