You'd think parents of young children would be eager to put their kids to bed and have a few minutes to themselves. Yet a surprising number don't set bedtimes for their children. Bedtimes do change as children grow older, but keeping your children on a consistent daily schedule has big benefits.

Not only does a routine help get your child ready to sleep, if young children go to bed at a consistent time, they behave better during the day, a new study shows. Think about the last time you were traveling with your children, or visiting family or friends into the evening. When children's bedtimes are delayed or irregular, their behavior is often worse.

The negative effect of irregular bedtimes appeared to be reversible, as children whose bedtime patterns improved over time also showed an improvement in behavior.

A consistent bedtime is an important and powerful tool that helps children regulate themselves, develop positive behaviors, and function successfully at home and in the community. These are the conclusions the study which analyzed sleep times and behavior problems in young children from 3 to 7 years old. It found that inconsistent bedtimes have long-term effects on behavior — none of them good.

Lessons Learned from Putting 10,000 Children to Bed

The British study tracked the sleep habits and daytime behaviors of over 10,000 children, checking in with families when the children were 3, 5, and 7 years old. The researchers asked parents about the emotional atmosphere in the home, and family routines such as bedtimes and TV watching.

Children’s mothers were queried about their children's social lives and emotional control at the same intervals. Were they seeing any conduct problems, hyperactivity, emotional issues, problems socializing, or sharing, cooperating, or helping others?

You Don't Want to Let Kids Stay Up Late
The researchers found that when children's bedtimes were inconsistent, behavior suffered. And the more variable children’s bedtime patterns were, the worse the children’s behavior became.

Going to bed late was an especially big problem. Children who went to bed after 9:00 p.m. had more behavioral problems than those who had earlier lights out.

The researchers believe the behavior problems may occur because irregular bedtimes interrupt a child's normal, 24-hour circadian patterns and therefore disrupt a child’s physical and mental functioning.

It's about the developing brain, too. Sleep is important for the maturation of parts of the brain that are involved in the regulation of behavior. Children who have inconsistent bedtimes often also get less and lower quality sleep, which can interfere with brain development, creating effects that can last into later life.

A Win-Win Opportunity for Parents

This study shows that regular bedtimes are an important contributor to a child’s physical and mental health. When children have behavioral difficulties, vicious cycles can develop between parents and children and poor discipline techniques may escalate. Thus, bad behavior can have lasting effects as children and parents amp up their dysfunctional behaviors.

If you are a parent who has been a little loose and unstructured around bedtime, take heart: the negative effects of irregular bedtimes appear to be reversible. As children's bedtime patterns improved, so did behavior.

Bedtime can be a time of warmth and connection between parents and children with bedtime routines and reading together or it can be a contentious end to an already stressful day.

There are many reasons why children have irregular bedtimes — from parenting styles, to children's resistance to going to sleep, to chaotic or hectic family environments, and TV and screen media use before sleep. The researchers also call for social and workplace policies that allow young parents to be both physically and emotionally available to their children. Even tired parents can find ways to slow the household's rhythms, however — with a bath, a book, softer voices, lights and screens turned off.

For parents, establishing a consistent time for bed is a win-win opportunity. It gives children a daily structure that can help them develop and helps establish a very basic kind of self-discipline. It also can prevent many problems down the road. As the authors write, “Having regular bedtimes during early childhood is an important influence on children’s behavior. There are clear opportunities for interventions aimed at supporting family routines that could have important impacts on health throughout life.”

Bedtime can be a time of warmth and connection between parents and children with bedtime routines and reading together, or it can be a contentious end to an already stressful day. It is well worth the effort. Parents should discuss bedtime issues with their children’s health care providers and if necessary, enlist their help in winning children over to a quiet evening routine.

The study is published in Pediatrics.