How early should you put your kids to bed?
“Absurdly early,” advises mum and science journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer. Her review of the research confirms what her own experience has taught her: that earlier bedtimes mean happier kids - and happier parents. And in the digital world we all live in, that’s more important than ever.
You’re probably already aware of the statistics: Many - maybe even most - of our kids are not getting the recommended amount of sleep. Figures from the National Sleep Foundation show 30 percent of children under 11 and more than half of teens get less sleep than experts say they should.
Yet in the US at least, fully half of toddlers and preschoolers don’t go down until after 9 pm. For their slightly older brothers and sisters of primary-school age, the figure is 64%. The numbers here in Australia are likely similar.
How bedtimes impact sleep-time
Yet the links between bedtime and sleep quality and duration are significant - and surprising.
For instance, according to many studies, kids who go down later actually take longer to fall asleep and wake up more frequently through the night. Worst of all, they don’t actually sleep in late enough to compensate for that sleep debt.
Moyer cites a study showing that teens whose parents set a 9 pm bedtime got an hour and a quarter more sleep than those who were allowed to stay up later. Younger kids, aged 7 to 11, slept half an hour longer each night when researchers asked their parents to set an earlier bedtime for five nights in a row.
And here’s a fun fact: the sleep that happens earlier in the night has been shown to be better quality - that is, extra-restful. An early bedtime can ensure your child receives the benefit of that super-restorative sleep.
And that will impact not only their mood but also their brain function, boosting short-term memory, working memory and attention.
What’s the ideal bedtime for younger kids? No surprises for guessing there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
... Virtually no expert recommended a bedtime later than 8 pm for primary-school-aged children.
But experts advise watching your school-aged child’s mood between 5 and 7 pm. Cranky, irritable behaviour - or for that matter super-charged, frantic activity - may be a sign that bedtime should be moved earlier.
Moyer found virtually no expert recommended a bedtime later than 8 pm for primary-school-aged children.
The 10 pm trap
When it comes to teens, the link between adequate sleep and mental health is confronting - with studies showing, for example, that young people with parent-set bedtimes before 10 pm are significantly less likely to be depressed and have thoughts about self-harm.
In fact, But the most dangerous time for kids online is between 10 pm and 2 am, according to Family Zone cyber experts Dave and Katie Kobler of youth consultancy Protect Our Kids.
“It’s that time of night when mum and dad go to bed, so often the WiFi is left on, and we find that young people - whether they want to be or not - they often get caught in this trap of watching porn online,” says Katie.
Often it’s material “they don’t even want to be looking at - but they feel helpless to look away.” This is also prime-time for bullying and body-image issues to occur. For this reason, experts refer to this time period as “The 10 pm Trap.”
And if you’re thinking that sleeping in on the weekends can compensate - think again. Experts caution that extra weekend is sleep is “basically a sign of chronic weekday sleep deprivation,” says Moyer.
How does screen-time affect sleep?
The short answer is: badly. Numerous studies have established a strong correlation between night-time screen use and sleep issues.
The blue light emitted by screens, which interferes with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, is partly to blame. But overstimulation is another major factor. Content that is interactive and emotionally charged - think social media and many online games - can keep the brain awake long after the body is begging for rest.
Parenting experts are unanimous in advising a “digital sunset” for children’s devices an hour before bedtime. Parental controls that allow mums and dads to automate age-appropriate sleep-times are an ideal tool to ensure best-quality sleep for today’s digital kids.
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