Ask the Pediatrician | Behavior | Preschool

Consistent bedtimes for young kids are linked to better behavior at age 7

I know I am better off with a good night’s sleep. And so are my kids. But I see parents all the time who for one reason or another let bedtime be negotiable or flexible or downright non-existent as a set time for their young kids. For some working parents, it’s a desire to spend more time with their young children since the time between the end of the work day and a typical bedtime is so short. For other parents it’s the demands of older children and their activities schedules that make it hard to be home by 7 to get a bedtime routine going. Sometimes parents tell me their child just doesn’t seem tired so they don’t see a need to shoot for an early bedtime even though the child is waking at the usual early morning hour. For a small few the parents want or need to be out and about and bringing the child along seems easier than getting a babysitter and the child ends up having no routine to his bedtime.

A recent study published in Britain revealed that children who have irregular bedtimes during the toddler and preschool years were more likely at age 7 to have behavioral problems compared to their peers who had more routine bedtimes. The study’s authors theorized that the behavioral issues may have been the result of chronic or episodic sleep deprivation or disrupted circadian rhythms causing problems but I wonder if it is something quite different. Children who are reared in households without the routine of a consistent bedtime are likely to have otherwise permissive parents or inconsistent parents with regard to limit setting. I don’t doubt that tired kids are more likely to behave badly, but so are children who are inconsistently parented.

I see it with some regularity in my office. The parent who struggles to get their child to go to bed at a reasonable time is also typically a parent whose child is a picky eater because the parent has catered to the child’s food preferences to excess (or the child took a bottle until they were 18 months or longer because the parent couldn’t seem to ‘get the child to agree to give it up’) and is also a parent who struggles with a child who whines or has tantrums. These kids seem to rule the roost and the parent seems a bit afraid to upset the child by saying no. It’s no wonder to me that children who’s bedtimes are irregular are behaviorally more challenging at age 7. They are most likely used to getting their way. Parents aren’t typically the ones keeping the child up past a typical bedtime after all.

Whatever the reason, the study did have some good news to go along with these findings. Children whose parents adopted consistent bedtimes did show improvements in their behavior.

So all is not lost — get to bed! Early and consistently, so your preschooler and school-aged child has the 11-12 hours of sleep she needs to be at her best every day.

Dr. Molly O'Shea
Dr. Molly O'Shea is a board-certified pediatrician who cares for families in her practice Birmingham Pediatrics + Wellness Center. She will answer your questions on babies, children, adolescents and families and address common concerns.