The author of the popular book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child,” may be on to something; a new study finds kids who don’t have a regular bedtime are more likely to have behavioral problems.
The study from researchers at University College London found that irregular bedtimes could disrupt natural body rhythms and cause sleep deprivation, undermining brain maturation and the ability to regulate certain behaviors.
“Not having fixed bedtimes, accompanied by a constant sense of flux, induces a state of body and mind akin to jet lag,” said Professor Yvonne Kelly, Ph.D., of the University College London, “and this matters for healthy development and daily functioning.”
“We know that early child development has profound influences on health and wellbeing across the life course,” she continued. “It follows that disruptions to sleep, especially if they occur at key times in development, could have important lifelong impacts on health.”
Analyzing data from more than 10,000 children in the UK Millennium Cohort Study, the researchers collected bedtime data at three, five and seven years. They also incorporated reports from the children’s mothers and teachers on behavioral problems.
The study found a statistically significant link between bedtimes and behavior, according to the researchers.
Irregular bedtimes affected children’s behavior by disrupting circadian rhythms, leading to sleep deprivation that affects the developing brain, the scientists said.
As children progressed through early childhood without a regular bedtime, their behavioral scores — which included hyperactivity, conduct problems, problems with peers and emotional difficulties — worsened.
However, children who switched to a more regular bedtime showed clear improvements in their behavior.
“What we’ve shown is that these effects build up incrementally over childhood, so that children who always had irregular bedtimes were worse off than those children who did have a regular bedtime at one or two of the ages when they were surveyed,” Kelly said.
“But our findings suggest the effects are reversible. For example, children who change from not having to having regular bedtimes show improvements in their behavior.”
Irregular bedtimes were most common at the age of three, when around one in five children went to bed at varying times, she reported. However, by the age of seven, more than half the children went to bed regularly between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 pm.
Children whose bedtimes were irregular or who went to bed after 9 p.m. came from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and this was factored into the study findings, according to the researchers.
“As it appears the effects of inconsistent bedtimes are reversible, one way to try and prevent this would be for health care providers to check for sleep disruptions as part of routine health care visits,” Kelly said.
“Given the importance of early childhood development on subsequent health, there may be knock-on effects across the life course. Therefore, there are clear opportunities for interventions aimed at supporting family routines that could have important lifelong impacts.”
The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.
This article first appeared on Psych Central on 14 October, 2013.