How Irregular Bedtimes When Kids Are Young Can Impact Their Health In Teen Years

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 
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We start winding down our three children around 7:30 p.m. Well, in theory we do. That’s what’s listed on the nighttime whiteboard in my kitchen. “7:30 p.m.: get ready for bed.”

But let’s use last night for example. At 7:30, my 9-year-old daughter had procrastinated doing her homework long enough that she was still at the table, left hand in her hair, right hand working out a math problem, lips twisted, shoulders slumped, clearly pissed off because we were, you know, actually making her do her homework.

My son was still upset that we’d asked him to bathe because he smelled like adolescence. He was pouting in the easy chair, half dressed.

And my four-year-old? Forget about it. She was bouncing off the walls in an old Halloween costume, asking for candy, a little pee in her pants because she “forgot” to use the potty.

There was crying, fighting, and begging, much of which came from my wife or myself. At some point I drafted this tweet, “I have a… friend… looking for an essential oil that will help children sleep. Something similar to chloroform, but all natural and less illegal. DM me if you know of something…”

I don’t want to state the obvious, but I was the friend. I wanted the essential oils. We didn’t actually get everyone in bed and to sleep until around 9:30 p.m.

Getting your kids to bed at a regular time so that they get a consistent amount of sleep feels a lot like signing a bill into American law. If everything is in the right place, along with a few bribes, and a little yelling, it can happen. But 90% of the time, it doesn’t work out the way you planned.

Now the last thing I want to do is make any parent reading this feel worse, but as it turns out, some researchers at Penn State have been doing research on consistent sleep schedules, and it doesn’t look good for the average parent knee deep in bedtime hell. Their study showed that children who didn’t have regular bedtimes during early childhood had a greater chance of increased body weight as they grew older. Specifically, the national study found that children who had no strict bedtime routine at the age of 9 had a higher BMI at the age of 15 than those who had an age-appropriate bedtime.

So yeah… that sucks.

“Parenting practices in childhood affect physical health and BMI in the teenage years,” wrote co-author Orfeu Buxton and professor of bio-behavioral health at Penn State. “Developing a proper routine in childhood is crucial for the future health of the child. We [also] think sleep affects physical and mental health, and the ability to learn.”

Well… duh. Any parent raising a child who didn’t get enough sleep can tell you that their physical and mental health is affected. Two weeks ago, my four-year-old refused to go to sleep, then she got up in the middle of the night and argued with me as to whether or not tomorrow was “show and tell day.” I tried telling her that tomorrow was Saturday, but it didn’t matter, so finally I said it was. Then she insisted on finding something to bring to show and tell. Somehow she still managed to get up just after 5 a.m. That whole day she was an incoherent, nonsensical, jerk face. So yeah, lack of sleep can affect their mental health, along with that of the parent.

But I will admit, I’d never considered that it might also cause weight gain. Naturally, the study doesn’t give any clear guidelines for how much sleep your child should get. They leave that up to the parent along with your doctor, but after living with my own children for some time, it’s pretty easy to gauge when my children have had enough sleep. What they seem to be advising most is consistency of sleep. They also don’t say too much as to why inconsistent sleep causes weight gain, but it’s easy to assume it has to do with unhealthy habits.

However, the researchers did touch on a finding that I found disconcerting. Lead author Soomi Lee said, “In our sample that includes a large proportion of low-income, low-education, and ethnic minority households, only less than one third of children had age-appropriate bedtime routines at age 5 and 9. This raises a concern about development and health of children in disadvantaged households.” He went on to suggest that there is a need for parental education and perhaps intervention in this area.

Coming from a low-income, single parent, household, I can say confidently that I didn’t hold to a routine as a child because my mother was at work. My father left when I was 9, and once he did, there was no one around to fight me into my pajamas or remind me to do my homework, so I usually fell asleep on the sofa watching TV, backpack still in the corner, some instant popcorn at my side. I doubt education would’ve solved this dilemma. My mother knew I should go to bed on time, but making ends meet was more pressing.

As a parent, this study did make me feel a little better about the fight I put up each night to get my children to bed. My hope is that it will, eventually, take. And obviously there are more benefits to getting my children to bed on time each night than just snagging a little more time on the sofa, next to my wife, watching Netflix.

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