As a sleep consultant, it’s no secret that I’m a fan of early bedtimes—especially for little kids. And as hard as it can be to get my nine-year old daughter and five-year-old twins into bed before 8 pm when everyone else their age seems to be staying up later, making sure they get the rest they need is at the top of my priority list.
Which is why I’m more than just a little bit excited about a recent study that trumpets the importance of early bedtimes. (See, kids? Mom knows what she’s talking about!)
The Journal of Pediatrics recently published a study associating later bedtimes for preschoolers with teen obesity. “Preschool-aged children with early weekday bedtimes (8 p.m. or earlier) are one-half as likely as children with late bedtimes to be obese as adolescents,” wrote the researchers. The study looked at almost 1,000 families with preschoolers (mostly four-and-a-half-year-olds) and found that 25 per cent of the participants had “early” bedtimes—anything 8 pm or earlier. Fifty per cent of the kids went to bed after 8 p.m. but before 9 p.m., and the other 25 per cent had “late” bedtimes—meaning after 9 p.m. Of the preschoolers who had bedtimes later than 9 p.m., 23 per cent were obese (as measured by BMI) when they turned 15, whereas only 10 per cent of the early-bedtime preschoolers were obese at age 15.
The study also found that children who were of “non-white race/ethnicity, born to less educated mothers, or living in lower-income households were significantly more likely to have a late bedtime at preschool age.” This makes sense when you think of the many ways reality—our busy lives, jobs, and personal challenges—can get in the way of our best intentions as parents. “In the context of poverty, poor health, or adverse life events, families may struggle to maintain a consistent bedtime routine,” the study authors speculate.
But finding this relationship between bedtime and the risk of obesity later in life makes it pretty clear to me that, just like exercise and nutrition, sleep is absolutely key to our kids’ health. Plus, not only do well-rested children learn more rapidly, but their attention, memory and decision-making can all be diminished due to inadequate sleep.
I know how tough it can be to get your kids into bed and asleep early. But there are lots of tips and tricks you can put into practice:
HOW MUCH SLEEP DO THEY ACTUALLY NEED?
Preschoolers (3-5): Average sleep time – 10-13 hours per night. I recommend a bedtime of 7-7:30 p.m.
School-age children (6-13): Average sleep time – 9-11 hours per night. I recommend a bedtime of 8-8:30 p.m.
Teenagers (14-17): Average sleep time – 8-10 hours. I recommend you encourage a starting bedtime of around 9:30-10 p.m.
1.) Keep evenings simple
Try your best not to over-schedule evenings so that bedtimes are being pushed out too late. Create a family schedule that allows for extracurricular activities, but that also allows you to protect your child’s sleep 80 per cent of the time.
2.) Prepare meals ahead of time
While it may be tough to make dinner time earlier, try making the whole process less work by preparing dinners ahead of time. I’m all for a great slow cooker meal so you can spend less time in the kitchen and more time around the table. Or make it super easy. Breakfast for supper happens at least once a week at my house!
3.) Appeal to your kid’s common sense
Kids are pretty clever little creatures. So it’s important not only to tell them they need to go to bed, but why they need to. Ask them: “How do you feel when you’ve had a good night of sleep?” and “How do you feel when you haven’t had a good night of sleep?” Preschoolers and kindergarteners especially relate well to animals—so try comparing the situation to your family pet. Teach them that their pet dog (for example) needs 10 hours of sleep at night to feel well, and so do they.
4.) Start small
Even if you can aim to make bedtime 15-30 minutes earlier than normal, you have a better chance of putting your child down well-rested (instead of overtired), making it easier for them to fall asleep and get the sleep they need.
Alanna McGinn is a mom of three and the founder of Good Night Sleep Site, a sleep consultancy she started from her home in Burlington, Ont. goodnightsleepsite.com