Irregular bedtimes linked to behavioural problems in children

Researchers from UCL have found that children with irregular bedtimes are more likely to have behavioural difficulties.
The study, which is published in the
journal Pediatrics, found that irregular bedtimes could disrupt natural
body rhythms and cause sleep deprivation, undermining brain maturation
and the ability to regulate certain behaviours.

Professor Yvonne Kelly (UCL Epidemiology
& Public Health), said: “Not having fixed bedtimes, accompanied by a
constant sense of flux, induces a state of body and mind akin to jet
lag 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.
It follows that disruptions to sleep, especially if they occur at key
times in development, could have important lifelong impacts on health.”
Analysing data from more than 10,000
children in the UK Millennium Cohort Study, the team collected bedtime
data at three, five and seven years, as well as incorporating reports
from the children’s mothers and teachers on behavioral problems.
The study found a clear clinical and
statistically significant link between bedtimes and behavior as
irregular bedtimes affected children’s behavior by disrupting circadian
rhythms, leading to sleep deprivation that affects the developing brain.
As children progressed through early
childhood without a regular bedtime, their behavioural scores — which
included hyperactivity, conduct problems, problems with peers and
emotional difficulties — worsened. However, children who switched to a
more regular bedtime had clear improvements in their behaviour.
Professor Kelly said: “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.
“But our findings suggest the effects
are reversible,” continued Professor Kelly. “For example, children who
change from not having to having regular bedtimes show improvements in
their behaviour.”
Irregular bedtimes were most common at
the age of three, when around one in five children went to bed at
varying times. However, by the age of seven, more than half the children
went to bed regularly between 7.30 and 8.30 pm. Children whose bedtimes
were irregular or who went to bed after 9 pm came from more socially
disadvantaged backgrounds, and this was factored into the study
Professor Kelly said: “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. 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.”
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