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Want your kids to behave? Give them a regular bedtime.

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 14, 2013 07:40 AM

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sleeping child.jpgIf you want to have a well-behaved child, along with setting limits and being consistent with both punishments and rewards, here's what you should do:

Make sure your child has a regular bedtime.

That's the message of a study just published in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers from the United Kingdom asked parents of more than 10,000 children all sorts of questions, including questions about their behavior and sleep habits at ages 3, 5 and 7 years. They found that the children who didn't have a regular bedtime were more likely to have difficult behavior. 

We've known for a while that poor sleep habits are correlated with poor behavior in children. It has been a bit of a chicken-or-egg thing, though: is it that the poor sleep habits lead to poor behavior, or do kids with poor behavior tend to have difficulty with sleep? This study seems to suggest that the poor sleep causes the poor behavior. There a direct correlation---i.e. the more irregular the sleep routine, the more trouble with the child's behavior. Also--and this is the really good news--it was reversible. If parents started giving their children a regular bedtime, the behavior problems got better!

This makes all sorts of sense. Regular sleep routines are important--not just because circadian rhythms are important for our health and well-being, but also because they help us get enough sleep. When we don't get enough sleep, it stresses both the body and the mind--hence the poor behavior.

While all of us are crankier and less pleasant when we don't get enough sleep, this has a particular importance for children, because experts believe that sleep is important for the development of parts of the brain that regulate behavior. This means that messed-up sleep in childhood could lead to messed-up behavior for life. Not what we want for our kids.

So, parents, make sure your kid has a regular bedtime, early enough to get at least 8-10 hours of sleep (every child has a different sleep need, but less than 8 hours isn't good for anyone). While the researchers only asked about routines on weeknights, experts say that staying up a lot later on weekends makes it harder to fall asleep on weeknights--keeping things more or less the same is your best bet.

Here are some tips to help your child fall asleep at that regular bedtime:
  • Have a calming bedtime routine--nothing too active or exciting. Try a nice bath or shower, snuggling, reading...things like that.
  • Cut out the TV and video games. Not only can they be exciting, but the blue light they emit can actually activate the brain (so even the non-exciting shows can be a problem).
  • Start the routine early, a good hour or so before bedtime (you might want to stop the TV earlier). Relaxation can take a little time.
It might be a good idea to use this as an opportunity to look at and improve your own bedtime routines. Not only will you set a good example, you might just end up happier and healthier--and better behaved, too. :)


Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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