Most parents and children have a love-hate relationship with bedtime. As we have seen, bedtime is often met with resistance from children. It’s a somber occasion because bedtime means all the fun of the day has come to an end. As a parent, when you’re setting a bedtime for your child, you may consider accounting for the time they spend preparing for or resisting sleep. You may want to time how long it takes for your child to put on their pajamas, brush their teeth, take a bath, or read a story and create a pre-bedtime buffer so their actual bedtime is consistent every night.
Obviously, life sometimes gets in the way, and there will be times bedtime happens earlier or later than planned, but a recent study found that regular bedtimes really matter to children’s developing brains. Establishing a consistent bedtime isn’t only to ensure your child gets enough hours of sleep, but this routine is vital for brain development and performance.
What the research says
Researchers from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London examined whether bedtimes in early childhood are related to cognitive performance. Researchers followed 11,000 children from when they were 3-years old to the age of 7 to measure the effects of bedtimes on cognitive function as shown through cognitive test scores in reading, math, and spatial abilities.
What’s interesting about how this study is set up is that it’s a nationally representative prospective population-based cohort study. This means a defined population is followed up and observed over a long period of time. This style of study sets out to assess the relationship between reported bedtimes through early childhood and cognitive performance at age 7.
Researchers wanted to learn if the children’s bedtimes were consistent, so parents were asked a survey question about the consistency of their bedtimes at ages 3, 5, and 7 for each child. Then, each child was given a standardized test that measured their cognitive ability.
The researchers’ cross-sectional findings suggest that non-regular and late bedtimes in 7-year-olds have small but statistically significant associations with lower reading, math, and spatial skill scores for girls but not for boys.
Their longitudinal analysis suggests that there may be sensitive period effects, whereby not having regular bedtimes at age 3 is independently associated with lower cognitive performance at age 7 for both girls and boys, but the size of these associations is relatively small.
The impact on development
Inconsistent bedtime schedules may impact cognitive development and performance in 2 ways. First inconsistent bedtime disrupts the circadian rhythm, or circadian cycle, which is the internal process that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Your circadian rhythm helps guide your body to let it know when to sleep and when to be awake. It’s crucial in helping us regain energy lost from being awake and performing daily activities.
Second, inconsistent bedtime affects brain plasticity. Brain plasticity is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. Sleep plays a critical role in learning and memory, emotional regulation, and related brain structure development. Regular bedtimes are important for both boys and girls, and the earlier these can be implemented, the better for cognitive performance.
Most would think that inconsistent bedtimes are a reflection of chaotic family life and that impacts cognitive performance in children. However, this study found that inconsistent bedtimes were linked to markers of cognitive performance independent of stressful family environments.
The researchers also mention findings from previous studies that suggest that stressful family environments affect children’s functioning via effects on sleep quality. So their results suggest that having a regular bedtime is important alongside other aspects of family circumstances.
Overall, establishing a healthy sleep pattern in early life is very important for child development. And setting up these routines early, especially by the age of 3, is important in fostering healthy cognitive development.