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Letting Your Children Pick Their Own Bedtime Is Terrible for Them and for You

Let’s throw down this gauntlet: You should put your kid to bed at the correct early time for their age and wake-up time. Every night. As consistently as humanly possible. For most of their young lives. Apart from reading to your child a lot and teaching them at least two good jokes, your third most important job is to put that child to bed at a decent time. For your sanity. For their sanity. For the good of the human race. Don’t fuck this up.

Oh, sorry, did you read that thing on FiveThirtyEight about how bedtime is a social construct and every child is a unique sleeper and it’s probably okay to let them go to bed later if they want, because maybe they’re not tired yet and they really really want to stay up late? My child has been asking for a flying unicorn that she can mount and ride as it shoots glitter since she was 4 years old. Instead, I put her to bed at 7:30 p.m. every night.

Instead of explaining why early, regular sleep is so good, let’s focus on what happens when kids don’t get enough of it. A recent study from the University College, London by researcher Yvonne Kelly studied the bedtime habits of 10,000 children. They checked in with kids at age 3, age 5 and age 7, monitoring bedtimes and childhood behaviors. No surprise, the kids who didn’t sleep regularly and early were harder to put up with and universally less liked.

“Children with late bedtimes and non-regular bedtimes were more likely to have behavioral difficulties,” Kelly told NPR. “You know, things to do with hyperactivity and conduct problems. So hitting people and acting out, and not getting on with peers, and being emotionally withdrawn.”

Another study found that preschoolers who went to bed at or before 8 p.m. were half as likely to be obese as adults — only 10 percent were obese later in life, compared with 23 percent of preschoolers who hit the sack after 9 p.m.

It gets worse! Irregular sleep for children is also thought to disrupt the body clock, which disrupts brain development and brain plasticity, making it harder to retain and synthesize information — in other words, basic learning. But staying up late doesn’t just create a moody, aggressive child who can’t concentrate; it also promotes other bad habits that come along with being up late, like late-night snacking and more television.

Here’s the thing: Getting a good night’s sleep helped to counteract too much television or a bad breakfast. Even the kids who did those things were okay if they simply got good sleep. Erratic sleep had the biggest negative impact on a kid’s life, leading researchers to conclude that bad sleep at ill-advised hours is tantamount to constant jet lag for kids. (There’s also evidence this affects girls more than boys.)

Maybe you’re thinking, Hey, I stay up late all the time and burned the midnight oil when I was a teenager and I’m okay! You’re probably not okay at all, but more importantly, kids are not adults; they aren’t even teenagers. Another sleep researcher NPR spoke with, Russell Rosenberg, said the reason kids need a consistent and early bedtime is that their melatonin levels rise earlier in the evening than teens or grownups. This happens naturally around 7 or 8 p.m. And the American Academy of Pediatrics says kids aged 3 to about 12 need anywhere between 9 and 13 hours of sleep every night. This is simple math.

“Roughly, infants should sleep by 7 p.m., toddlers by 7:30 p.m., younger children by 8 p.m., preteens by 8:30 p.m. and teens between 9 and 10:30 p.m.,” Harriet Hiscock, associate professor at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia, told CNN in a piece about the best bedtimes for kids.

So why is FiveThirtyEight arguing that it’s fine if your kids don’t go to bed early or when you want them to or when anyone says they’re supposed to?

Kids Fight Bedtime

One reason is that research shows that kids really super do not like bedtime, and they resist it more the older they get. And when parents stop fighting it, everyone is less frustrated. Holla! Truer words have not been spoken, but this isn’t a compelling reason to give in to their demands and let them pick their bedtime. Kids also fight brushing their teeth, eating anything that isn’t beige, and sharing, but we soldier on, trying to transform them into acceptable non-sociopaths.

Normal Is Variable

Second, they argue that yes, kids need more sleep than grownups, but what they “need” is “variable” within the range of “healthy,” and biology determines this more than anything else. So if you have a kid who really only needs 9 hours, but you’re insisting on 12, that’s a waste of everyone’s time. The problem is, how do you figure out what they “need”?

In fairness, some experts say that the hour kids go to sleep doesn’t matter as much as them getting the right amount of sleep. So if you want to put your child to bed at 10 p.m., that ostensibly could get them as much sleep as they need, as long as they don’t have to wake up early. (But, uh, what if they “need” 16 hours?)

“Wake-up time has to dictate the bedtime,” sleep expert Rebecca Michi told Time. “Children can go to bed late if they wake up late. First-graders need 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night. Otherwise they are sleep deprived, and we all act like 2-year-olds when we are sleep deprived.”

But even if later bedtimes are when children can wake up late, still more research complicates playing it fast and loose with your child’s sleep. Other studies show it’s harder to fall asleep the later you try, meaning getting a late start guarantees not getting the needed amount, whatever it may be. Experts say to watch how your kid acts between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to see if they are still alert and engaged or zombie-eyed and irritable. (This sleep calculator tells you the best times to get a kid to sleep based on age, desired wake-up time, and various biological info about sleep cycles.) And even if you think your kid needs less sleep, it might not be easy to tell. Lots of kids wake up at 6 a.m. no matter how much sleep they’ve gotten, and seem fine, but still struggle with the mental tasks and irritability later in the day.

The bottom line here is that most of us parent not to achieve fine, but to achieve optimal. And setting an early bedtime is laying groundwork for optimal. It’s not just the sleep that matters, it’s all the other stuff, too: instilling good pre-bedtime grooming habits, reading, winding down (turning off the television and light sources), connecting with your kid in a pleasant way, and chilling out to be in a good environment that promotes solid sleep — however much that is — to wake up early enough to get the day going.

Besides, even if kids stay up later and sleep later, the world doesn’t. Jobs, schools and the rest of the world are already humming along before you’ve so much as heated the water for oatmeal.

And if that’s not enough to convince you that early, regular bedtimes are golden, consider the selfish result of giving your kid the best running start in life: You produce a better, more engaged child, and also get more time to yourself at night to sit around and play Tetris. True, it’s nothing like the life you had before having kids in the first place, but it’s far better than arguing with an emotional child about a glass of water.