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07/26/2013
Many parents have a nightly battle getting their little ones to bed. All too often, children want to stay up watching TV or playing computer games - in short, doing anything that delays the boredom of bedtime and the end of another day. 

Parents are also familiar with the consequences of their children going to bed late: irritable moods, disruption to the following morning’s routine and a general lack of energy. Now it seems that there could be even larger repercussions.

Recent research at University College London has shown that irregular bedtimes can affect children’s memory and their ability to process new information. In the study, children who went to bed at a different time every night scored lower on tests of maths, reading and spatial awareness than those who had a set bedtime. The results were especially marked in very young children, and girls were affected more than boys.  

“Sleep has a crucial and complex role in the maintenance of health and optimal function,” said the authors of the sleep report. “Inconsistent bedtime schedules might impact on markers of cognitive development by disrupting circadian rhythms and affecting brain ‘plasticity’ - its ability to absorb and store new information.” 

Moreover, it seems that a childhood with no set bedtimes can lead to problems sleeping and learning in teenage years and beyond. The researchers added, “Relations between inconsistent bedtimes and aspects of early child development may have knock-on effects for health and broader social outcomes throughout life.” 

Of course, some children need more sleep than others, and the study focussed on bedtime regularity rather than how early children go to bed. But it does appear that getting children into a solid bedtime routine is important for their development. So what is the best way to encourage this in children who simply don’t like going to bed? And how to deal with the problem of children getting out of bed if they can’t get to sleep or wake up during the night? 

Most children these days spend much of their leisure time in front of a screen of some sort, be it TV, tablet, smartphone or laptop. All of these are over-stimulating, and should ideally be shut down an hour before the intended bedtime. For young children, a wind-down consisting of a bath and story is effective, along with soft music that masks the sound of traffic or household activity.  

Older children might want to chat for a while, but parents should try to avoid sitting with them until they fall asleep, as this discourages them from “self-soothing”, or going to sleep unaided. Red lighting, to which the brain is less sensitive, is the best solution for children who dislike the dark. 

The importance of regular bedtimes might seem obvious, but it is easy to let a solid routine slip if it has been an eventful day or if your children are having some behavioural issues. Parents should do their best to maintain set bedtimes, even when giving in and letting them stay up just a little bit later seems an easier option.

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