Children who do not have a regular bedtime are more likely to suffer behavioural problems, according to new research.
Erratic bedtimes can cause a similar effect to jet lag and the longer youngsters go without regular bedtimes, the greater the impact on their behaviour, a study of more than 10,000 children found.
The researchers warn going to bed at different times could disrupt natural body rhythms and cause sleep deprivation. In turn, this undermines the way the brain matures and the ability to regulate some behaviours.
But the team from University College London also found the effect is reversible - parents who started putting their children to bed at consistent times noticed an improvement in their behaviour, as did teachers. They proposed healthcare providers should check for sleep disruptions during routine health checks.
Professor Yvonne Kelly, from UCL’s department of epidemiology and public health, said: “As it appears the effects of inconsistent bedtimes are reversible, one way to try and prevent this would be for healthcare 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.”
The data was collected via the UK Millennium Cohort Study, with bedtimes noted at age three, five and seven, and information on behaviour collected from parents and teachers.
Irregular bedtimes were most common at the age of three, when around one in five children went to bed at varying times.
The experts found that those youngsters who experienced erratic bedtimes throughout childhood displayed progressively worse behaviour. The types of behaviour studied included hyperactivity, repetitive bad behaviour, problems with peers and emotional difficulties.
But those children who went from varying bedtimes aged three or five to a regular bedtime by age seven displayed a notable improvement in behaviour.
The research, published in the journal Pediatrics also found children whose bedtimes were irregular or who went to bed after 9pm came from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds. They were more likely to have poor routines such as skipping breakfast, not being read to daily and spending longer in front of a TV than children with earlier bedtimes.
Professor Kelly 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.
“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.”
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