Like all parents, we have learned what works in our home through trial and error with our little boys, who are now almost three and almost six years of age respectively. There are many rules which are bent, stretched, or shattered depending on the circumstances. One rule, however, that we have learned to respect is the fact that our kids NEED TO BE IN BED BY 8 PM. The reason is that, unscientifically, my kids start to spazz out after this time and that their resistance to being told what to do increases exponentially after this hour.
There was some recent research on bedtime in early childhood which suggests that being strict about your kid’s bedtime has benefits other than the short-term (your sanity). This research has received a lot of press. A group in England examined the relationship between bedtime regularity and timing (at ages 3, 5, and 7), and measures of scholastic ability at age 7 in over 10,000 children as part of the Millenium Cohort Study. Parents were asked about the timing of their child’s bedtime. Was it regular on weeknights? When did it typically occur? Irregular bedtimes and typical bedtimes later than 9 PM were both associated with decreased reading, math, and spatial abilities both at the time of measurement and at follow up measurements. In simpler language, irregular or late bedtimes seemed to be related to lower markers of future scholastic achievement. This study does have some important limitations. First off, the authors did not track sleep duration, so I suspect that later bedtimes are a marker of sleep deprivation. The other significant factor is that irregular bedtimes corresponded to some level of socioeconomic disadvantage for the child. It is easy to imagine how a single parent working two jobs may struggle to get his or her child into bed regularly.
However, these findings makes a lot of sense. More consistent rules and more sleep help children to thrive. In my experience, bedtime needs to be goal directed, linear, and consistent. It should happen at the same time most nights and allow your child to get between 10-11 hours of sleep at night, which is appropriate for most school age kids. Many children wake at the same time independent of how late they go to bed; this is why the timing of bedtime is so important. Bedtime can be challenging: I have on how to address bedtime here and especially here. I also think that it is important, however, to be flexible for occasions that are meaningful– if your kids really wanted to see those fireworks on the 4th of July, I think you likely have not damaged their chances of getting into college.
The studied noted above was entitled “Time for bed: associations with cognitive performance in 7-year-old children: a longitudinal population-based study”; you can get the full article in the link above. This study also received quite a bit of press, some of which was a little hyperbolic:
Late nights ‘sap children’s brain power from the BBC
Irregular bedtimes may affect children’s brains from the Guardian.
Parents: what has worked for you at bedtime? Do you enjoy bedtime with your children, or is it a struggle?