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Regular Bedtimes for Children Support Academic Success

What time did your child go to bed last night and was it about the same time as the night before?

Having a consistent and early enough bedtime during children’s younger years is likely to pay dividends when they are older, with research showing that children who have non-regular and late bedtimes are more likely to perform worse in reading and maths. The longer the irregular and late sleep patterns continue, the more likely it is that a child may suffer these cognitive effects.

Sleep and Bedtimes Impact on Academic Performance

Two authors of the UK study of over 11,000 children, Professors Yvonne Kelly and Amanda Sacker from the department of Lifecourse Epidemiology at the University College London (UCL), explained that children with inconsistent bedtimes were more likely to have lower test scores and that the longer this irregularity continued between the ages of three and seven the more likely it was that a child’s test results could suffer.

Following children from the age of three until the age of seven, the researchers found that at three, about 20% of children had irregular bedtimes and by seven, about half of the children were going to bed at inconsistent times. Professor Amanda Sacker acknowledged that irregular bedtimes can be caused by family settings that can also influence academic performance - but even taking into account socio-economic factors, television watching or night-time reading to a child, there was a clear link shown between consistency of bedtime and test performance.

How Do Children’s Bedtime Routines Impact Brain Development?

There are other studies showing that sleep disturbance, for example caused by sleep disordered breathing (snoring and apnea)  can be linked to behavioural and academic problems and even more serious conditions such as ADHD. It is also clear that teenagers need more sleep than they generally achieve on school days – as a result of sleep deprivation, some teens show signs of less effective memory and increased difficulty problem-solving.  The new element of the UCL research is that it shows that three years old is an especially important time to have established a sleep routine, and that there is a cumulative effect if a child goes to bed at irregular times – this means that the more years of interrupted routine, the more likely it is that a child’s test results will be affected.

Acknowledging that our lifestyles have changed, Professors Sacker and Kelly say “busy family lives could leave parents and carers feeling as though they do not have enough time with their children, and it might be that bedtimes get pushed back or are not routinely in place”.  However, because inconsistent bedtimes can affect brain development by disrupting a child’s circadian rhythm and reducing the brain’s plasticity, “sleep is crucial …including [for] processes to do with the embedding of new knowledge, memory and skills into” the developing child’s brain.

Lack of Sleep in Children has a Cost

Another study of over 8400 Australian children by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute published in the British Medical Journal states that infant and child sleep problems are associated with an excess annual burden of $26.1 million to the Australian Medicare system. Sleep disruption and sleep deprivation often lead to mental health problems and behavioural problems that have a wider effect on the child’s family. The Institute’s report advocates that governments invest in prevention and intervention services for children’s sleep problems bearing in mind the significant social and economic impact on the community. As one example, we reported earlier this year on a Sydney hospital who told the media that it had insufficient resources to complete important sleep studies that are needed to diagnose children with sleep breathing disorders. 

If you suspect that your child has a sleep breathing disorder or if you are finding it difficult to establish a sleep routine with your child, it is important to seek expert advice via your doctor. You may also be able to obtain support for sleep routines from services such as Tresillian. 

Professors Sacker and Kelly emphasise that because early childhood is such an important time for cognitive development, policy-makers need to focus on supporting “families to provide conditions in which their young children can flourish.”

How Much Sleep Do Children Need?

Babies: at least 15 hours sleep and up to 20 when they are very young

Toddlers & Preschoolers (1 - 5): about 12 to 14 hours sleep

Primary School: about 10 to 12 hours sleep

High School: at least 8 hours but up to 10 hours sleep.

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