ils sleepCan environmental factors cause behavioral issues like hyperactivity and emotional difficulties? Evidence suggests that one critical environmental factor, bedtime, can play a role in children’s behavior. Researchers from the University College London have identified irregular sleep patterns—specifically, having inconsistent bedtimes—as a factor for behavioral issues. The researchers found that irregular bedtimes can result in sleep deprivation, which limits the brain’s ability to mature and to regulate emotions and impulses.

The research team, led by Professor Yvonne Kelly of UCL Epidemiology and Public Health, utilized data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, which includes statistics from over 10,000 children. The researchers extracted bedtime data for children aged three, five, and seven. They also cross-referenced the bedtime records with reports about behavioral issues from parents and teachers.

The results revealed a clear, statistically significant connection between bedtimes and behavior in children. Irregular bedtimes disrupt children’s circadian rhythms, which affects brain development. Disrupted sleep habits may have a “lifelong impact on health,” according to Kelly.

Irregular bedtimes have a cumulative effect on behavior; children who have always had irregular bedtimes exhibit more problems than those who have occasionally kept to a schedule. Fortunately, the data also indicate that the effects of irregular bedtimes are reversible. Children who begin following a schedule demonstrate behavioral improvements.

Professor Kelly concludes that a possible preventative measure would be for health care providers to investigate possible sleep disruptions during routine health care visits. “Given the importance of early childhood development on subsequent health, there may be knock-on effects across the life course. Therefore, there are clear opportunities for interventions aimed at supporting family routines that could have important lifelong impacts.”

This research is published in the journal Pediatrics.

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