Autumn: the season that brings us crisp air, colorful leaves, and a chance to recapture that lost hour surrendered with last spring’s shift to Daylight Saving Time. Gaining that hour can be a treat for many, but a trial for parents of young kids whose habits and body clocks don’t seem to care what time of day it is.
Sleep expert Dr. Heidi Connolly says good bedtime routines can help kids adjust to time or schedule changes while supporting their overall growth and development. She cites a study, published in the journal Pediatrics, linking kids’ regular bedtime routines with positive behavior.
Health Matters: Why is a bedtime route—and sticking to it—so important for kids?
Connolly: Inconsistent bedtime schedules in a child’s first few years can have a negative, long-term effect on health and social skills. During this time, kids’ brains are at an important point in development. Disrupting their sleep patterns can affect the part of their brain known as the frontal lobe, which is important for judgment and social patterns. Poor sleep can translate into higher risk for injuries, hyperactivity, and distractibility.
Parents may see the cause and effect of a poor night’s sleep—for example, a child’s frustration at being told “no.” But they may not see the effect of that poor night’s sleep on how the child sees him or herself. How kids behave during that early time in their development has a big impact on how they see themselves and fit in with their peers.
Irregular bedtime routines also influence performance in school. With disrupted sleeping patterns, kids are less likely to do well in school. This may have a lasting impact on their life since school plays a critical role in their opportunities for higher education and career options.
Health Matters: What can parents do to help their kids set good bedtime routines?
Connolly: Bedtime routines need to be treated as a priority. They should be consistent and brief, lasting about 20 minutes at most. Following the same routine really helps kids to fall asleep.
- Keep a pattern: It’s good for kids to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning, so try to keep to a regular schedule. It also helps if kids have the same sleeping arrangement each night. They shouldn’t be moving from the couch one night to their bed the next.
- Set the stage: Keep the sleeping space cool, quiet, and dark.
- More exercise, less electronics: Exercise during the day helps kids sleep better at night. Try to avoid light exposure and exercise one to two hours before bed. Kids’ electronics, including TVs, should be stored in one central location—and out of the bedroom.
Health Matters: How can parents help their kids get back in a routine after being on a break or with the end of Daylight SavingTime?
Connolly: It’s especially tough in winter because of the change in outdoor light exposure, but falling asleep at night really starts with waking up the morning before. Morning light exposure actually helps you to feel more awake during the daytime, making you feel sleepier at bedtime. Kids can seize opportunities to experience such light—sitting by a classroom window and playing outdoors during the day. Having high wattage light bulbs throughout your home will help, too.
When you know a schedule change is coming, a few days prior to it, have kids wake up slightly earlier each day. Moving their schedules up in 15-minute increments will give kids, and parents, time to adjust efficiently.
Heidi V. Connolly, M.D., is chief of the Division of Pediatric Sleep Medicine and director of thePediatric Sleep Medicine Services Programat UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital.