Sleep tight: Shoddy bedtime routines responsible for children’s behavioral problems? You betcha!


If you’re wondering whether inconsistent bedtime schedules are associated with behavioral difficulties, if their effects on behavior build up over early childhood and if those effects may be reversible, the answer is a resounding yes! Yes, irregular bedtime routines are clearly linked to a child’s behavioral problems, yes, the effects of disrupted sleep are cumulative, and yes, improving bedtime schedules can improve a child’s behavioral problems.


According to a new study just published in Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics), researchers at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College in London, England, studied data collected from 10,230 7-year-olds from the UK Millenium Cohort Study, with bedtime data collected at 3, 5, and 7 years and the corresponding behavioral difficulties scores rated by the children’s parents and teachers. The results indicated that:

  • children with nonregular bedtimes had more behavioral difficulties (social and emotional behavior, conduct problems, hyperactivity, peer problems)
  • there was an incremental worsening in behavioral scores as the irregular bedtimes through childhood persisted
  • for children who changed from nonregular to regular bedtimes there were significant improvements in behavioral scores
  • For children who changed from regular to nonregular bedtimes there was a statistically significant worsening in scores

Not having a regular bedtime might affect children’s behavior in two ways, posited the authors: “via disruptions to circadian rhythms, which are slow to adapt to changes in daily schedules, and via sleep deprivation and associated effects on homeostasis and brain maturation, because sleep is thought to be important in the maturation of anterior regions of the brain that are involved in the regulation of behaviors.” They went further and concluded that “inconsistent bedtime schedules in the first few years of life might set children onto particular trajectories in relation to their behavioral development, with potential knock-on effects for health and broader social outcomes throughout the life course.”

Caveat: While this study was mostly reliant on parental surveys and reports (and therefore could be prone to recall or perception bias), the findings from this study are consistent with previous studies which suggested that disruptions to sleep are linked to behavioral difficulties in children.

Bottom line?

Children’s brains do most of their developmentally important processing during their sleep. The good news is that the effects of inconsistent bedtime routines are reversible, so it doesn’t matter how bad they are now, changing them from this point on can improve children’s behavior and their overall development health.

I recently answered a reader’s question about how to decide on bedtimes for children on my blog, with a handy chart for how much a sleep a child needs, by age. Check it out here.

Source: Kelly Y, Kelly J, Sacker A (2013) Changes in Bedtime Schedules and Behavioral Difficulties in 7 Year Old Children, Pediatrics; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-1906

Behavior analyst turned blogger, Megan writes about parenting tips using the best practices of behavioral psychology at behavioral CHILD and about life in general, and hers in particular, at megan BLOGSRead more about Megan Broutian here.

Have a behavior or child development question? Ask Megan at [email protected]


Megan Broutian
Behavior analyst turned blogger, Megan writes about parenting tips using the best practices of behavioral psychology at behavioral CHILD and about life in general, and hers in particular, at megan BLOGSRead more about Megan Broutian here. Have a behavior or child development question? Ask Megan at contact(at)meganbroutian(dot)com.