by Susan Schmidt
Few doubt the importance of getting enough rest, as sleep is known to be a vital factor in your body’s growth and healing. A chronic lack of sleep throughout one’s life has also been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes and stroke. While adults can get by with seven to eight hours of sleep a night, children need far more as their bodies are still under development. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it’s recommended that teenagers get eight to 10 hours of sleep, school-aged children get nine to 11 hours of sleep and preschoolers should get 10 to 13 hours in order to enjoy the full health benefits of their slumber.
So, how do you ensure kids get their 40+ winks each night while still waking early enough to make it to school on time? The answer seems obvious, but the practice is not so prevalent—while many sleep experts advise that young children should go to bed between 6 and 8 p.m., National Sleep Foundation survey data shows that more than half of all toddlers and preschoolers in the U.S. go to bed after 9 p.m.
Not surprisingly, the same surveys show that 30 percent of kids under the age of 11 years get less sleep than is recommended. In addition, there are other studies that show kids who go to bed later take longer to actually fall asleep than those who call it a day earlier, thus receiving even less rejuvenating benefits.
All Sleep Is Not Equal
Beyond directly affecting the duration of a child’s sleep, an early bedtime could offer even more benefits. This is according to pediatrician Marc Weissbluth, author of the best-selling book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, who states, “when a child sleeps is probably as important or maybe more important as how much.”
That’s because sleep that occurs earlier in the night tends to be more restorative than sleep that takes place in the early morning as the child’s circadian rhythm begins the waking process.
So it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that late bedtimes can adversely affect the quality of your child’s sleep, but would you believe that late bedtimes can also increase a child’s risk for obesity? That’s exactly what a new study claims from Ohio State University’s College of Public Health.
“This study adds to a body of research that demonstrates that young children benefit from having a regular bedtime and bedtime routine,” said Sarah Anderson, associate professor of epidemiology and lead author of the study.
The current study analyzed data from a previous study done by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development entitled Early Child Care and Youth Development. Following 977 children from preschool-age to adolescence, the study tracked the time they went to bed, as well as their height, weight and body mass index.
What researchers found was that only 10 percent of the children who went to bed at 8 p.m. or earlier during their preschool years were obese as teenagers. There was a 16 percent rate of obesity in children whose preschool bedtime was between 8 and 9 p.m., and for those who went to bed after 9 p.m.—the obesity rate as teenagers was 23 percent.
“Preschool-aged children with early weekday bedtimes were half as likely as children with late bedtimes to be obese as adolescents. This was true even after taking into account other factors that we know are related to risk for obesity,” Anderson said. “Other re-search has shown benefits for children’s behavior, cognitive development and attention. Regular bedtime routines, including an early bedtime, also are linked to fewer sleep problems such as nighttime awakenings or difficulty falling asleep.”
How Sleep Patterns Affect Our Health
Not much is known in regards to a direct causal relationship, but experts believe there are several mechanisms in play in relation to the timing of when our kids actually put on their pajamas and turn out the lights. “Children who have a regular early bedtime are more likely to get enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep can result in changes in the hormones controlling appetite and metabolism,” Anderson said.
“Also, staying up later in the evening provides more opportunity for snacking and viewing television commercials that promote snacking,” she added. “Recommending that preschool-aged children are in bed by 8 p.m. is a potentially modifiable household routine that may help to prevent obesity.”
There is more at stake than physical development, as research shows that restful sleep, the kind you get when you go to bed early, is shown to affect both mood and mental health. This suggests that sleep is not only a time for the body to recover, but also the brain.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology followed a group of children all between 8 and 12 years old. For a period of three weeks, they were instructed to go to sleep either one hour later or earlier than usual each night, then asked to complete certain tasks at the end of each week. Researchers designed the tasks to measure emotional functioning, memory attention and math fluency—and the results showed that going to sleep one hour later actually impaired children’s performance.
As mentioned, the correlation between sleep, body and brain are not fully understood. Sumit Bhargava, M.D., a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine and sleep physician at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, points out some of the various theories that exist as to why we need to sleep, “some of the reasons are energy conservation theory: we sleep to conserve energy so we can be functional during the day.” In addition, “restorative theory suggests we sleep to ‘restore’ something that we lose while awake, with the body repairing and rejuvenating itself. Important hormones are secreted while we sleep and byproducts of the brain’s activity are cleared.” He concludes with, “brain plasticity theory suggests sleep is correlated to changes in the structure and organization of the brain.” So, which is right? How does sleep affect the body and mind? Could it be all three are happening simultaneously in the wee hours of the night?
What Parents Can Do So Everyone Sleeps Easy
Regardless of exactly what is happening, all evidence shows that it’s affected by “when” we sleep as much as, if not more than, “how long” we sleep. Also, it’s important to realize that there is no exact science as to bedtimes. Kids don’t come with manuals, so, unlike the charging of your new smartphone or when it’s best to change the water filter in your fridge, we really don’t know an exact time or duration at a given age. Parents need to be involved with setting and fine tuning a structure that works best for their child.
Marc Weissbluth, M.D., a pediatrician, suggests a simple experiment to see if you currently have your child going to sleep at the right time, “try putting your kid to bed 20 minutes earlier for a few nights and watch what happens. If he falls asleep easily, then chances are he or she should be going to bed earlier.” Just remember that consistency plays an important role in establishing good sleep habits. Start early and stick with it, both are key to helping a child develop to his or her full potential.