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Enforcing bedtimes improves kids' health

  • Story Highlights
  • Setting bedtimes can improve sleep quality and quantity for infants and toddlers
  • Study: Families from lower-educated backgrounds are less likely to use bedtimes
  • Don't medicate kids to help them go to sleep, researchers warn
By Madison Park
CNN
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(CNN) -- When Genevieve and Brian Skory were new to parenting, they allowed their two young kids to read or watch TV until they fell asleep.

A child's bedtime routine could affect his or her sleep pattern throughout a lifetime, a researcher said.

A child's bedtime routine could affect his or her sleep pattern throughout a lifetime, a researcher said.

"It was an agitated frenzy until they would pass out," Genevieve Skory recalled. The weary parents broke up fights between their bickering children. The next morning, the house would be chaotic again. "I don't think it's good for kids to stay up until they fall asleep -- that's three hours later than they needed to go to sleep," she said.

Setting bedtimes can improve sleep quality and quantity for infants and toddlers, according to a growing body of research. Not getting enough sleep affects children's behavior, memory, attention, and emotional well-being, experts said.

Tired of the chaos in the house, the Skorys started to enforce bedtime every night at 9. About an hour before bedtime, she restricts her children's use of TV and computers and instructs them to prepare for bedtime.

"Everyone is happier in the morning when there's a bedtime," Skory said. Research suggests there are additional benefits for children who have bedtimes.

"Sleep patterns and sleep routines matter because they have both long-term and short-term implications for health and cognitive development," said Lauren Hale, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University Medical Center in Stony Brook, New York. "If it sets a pattern in the way you treat sleep or bedtimes, these patterns may last your whole life unknowingly."

Hale is one of the authors of a new study published online in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics this month that found that black and Hispanic families and those with lower levels of income and education were less likely to enforce regular bedtimes for children. This could play a role in health disparities, she said.

How much sleep do you need?

Newborns

• Birth - 2 months old need 10.5 - 18 hours

Infants

•3 - 11 months old need 9 - 12 hours (and additional naps)

Toddlers/Children

• 1 - 3 years old need 12 - 14 hours

• 3 - 5 years old need 11 - 13 hours

• 5 - 12 years old need 10 - 11 hours

Adolescents need at least 8.5 - 9.25 hours

Adults typically need 7 - 9 hours

Source: National Sleep Foundation

"What we find is that disadvantaged populations or lower-education populations have worse health outcomes and it turns out they have worse sleep problems," she said.

The data didn't show why these families were less likely to use children's bedtimes. It could be related to the stress levels and fewer routines in the households, Hale said.

"Parents in those households, many of which are below poverty line, tend to be single-mother households, and they may be more burdened in many more ways than a traditional nuclear family," she said. Another possibility is that the parents may not be aware of the health benefits of regular bedtime routines.

In a sample of 3,217 households, in which three-quarters of the children were born to unmarried mothers, about 67 percent used a bedtime. Of the 67 percent, only about half put their 3-year-olds to bed before 9 p.m.

Toddlers between the age of 1 and 3 need 12 to 14 hours of sleep. Children who lack sleep can have behavioral and emotional problems and cognitive developmental issues, sleep researchers said.

About 71 percent of the sample reported using bedtime routines.

Such routines, such as a bath or a soothing activity, cuddling or singing a lullaby, help infants sleep better through the night and improve sleep issues for children, according to another study.

"Instituting a routine helped children fall asleep faster at bedtime," said Jodi Mindell, an author of that study published in a May edition of the journal Sleep.

In that study, 405 mothers and their infants or toddlers under the age of 3 were randomly assigned to a bedtime routine or instructed to follow their usual habits. The mothers recorded daily sleep diaries and filled out questionnaires every week. The researchers found that moods improved after using the bedtime routine.

Parents mean well, but some mistakenly believe that keeping their babies up late will help them sleep, said Mindell, an associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"They think that if they keep them up late, they'll conk out, that they'll be exhausted and they'll sleep better," she said. "And it backfires. We know that overtired babies take longer to fall asleep and they wake more frequently at night."

If children have difficulty falling asleep, parents should not turn to medication, experts said.

"Don't do it," warned Mindell. "Even in severely neurologically impaired kids, that is our third, fourth, or fifth choice. You really want to institute behavior changes first. ... [Medication is] not a panacea and there are so many concerns about side effects."

Using drugs such as Benadryl to help a child sleep may mask underlying problems, added Kelly Byars, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Cincinnati Children's Hospital in Ohio.

"It may be helpful for some children in a short-term situation, but in some cases children have a paradoxical reaction to Benadryl and become more alert, irritable, and hyperactive which leads to worse sleep problems," he wrote.

In many homes, bedtime still remains a battle of wills between parents and children.

In their bustling household in Lathrup Village, Michigan, the four Skory children are now between the ages of 9 and 18. Genevieve Skory doesn't get the crying, temper tantrums or massive resistance anymore, but her younger kids still try to stay up late by peppering her with questions and last-minute requests for snacks.

But Skory is adamant that bedtime is non-negotiable and this isn't enforced solely for their children's health.

"I believe in bedtime for parents' mental health," she said with a laugh.

All About Sleeping and Sleep DisordersChildren's HealthParenting

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