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Why your child should have an early bedtime

By Melody Tan 4 min read
Sunday, October 25, 2020

The benefits of getting your kid to bed early go beyond a brief moment of "you-time" after they've gone to sleep. It has the potential to give them a healthy head start too.

What time does your child go to bed?

My four-year-old has been going to bed at eight in the evening most days, pretty much since he finally discovered that sleeping was actually a thing. While that may sound like a typical (even late) bedtime for kids in Australia, it can often be viewed as early back in Singapore where I grew up, where 10pm is your average bedtime for a kid—yes, even one that young.

According to new research from the University of South Australia (UniSA) however, a habit of staying up late could be damaging to kids' health and wellbeing. The study focused on more than 1000 Australian children aged 11 and 12. So while the findings may not be quite relevant for my son as yet, they're certainly influencing how I should approach bedtime right now.

“We all appreciate the importance of a good night’s sleep, but too much or too little, going to bed late or having irregular sleep schedules can be a cause for concern,” says lead researcher, UniSA’s Lisa Matricciani.

“The key finding is that adults and children who regularly go to bed late are more likely to have an unbalanced diet comprising fewer fruits and vegetables and more junk foods, such as chips and sugary drinks.

“Additionally, this group is also more likely to be less active, with children engaging in higher amounts of screen-time and far less physical exercise."

How much sleep do children need?

The following, by the Sleep Health Foundation, is the recommended total hours of sleep, based on how old a child is (keeping in mind this is just a guide, and younger children will meet these hours in one or two naps on top of their night sleep).

Age Recommended total hours of sleep Not recommended
0–3 months 14 to 17 Less than 11 hours; more than 19
4–11 months 12 to 15 Less than 10 hours; more than 18
1–2 years 11 to 14 Less than 9 hours; more than 16
3–5 years 10 to 13 Less than 8 hours; more than 14
6–13 years 9 to 11 Less than 7 hours; more than 12
14–17 years 8 to 10 Less than 7 hours; more than 11

The best bedtime for children

Bedtimes during early childhood may vary depending on a family's schedule (anytime between 6.30pm and 9.30pm or later)—children who go to bed early tend to wake up earlier while those who go to bed later wake up later. However, by the time children start going to school, recommended bedtimes tend to be similar for most children since most would be expected to be at class at around the same time.

According to surveys conducted for the Growing Up in Australia Longitudinal Study, the average bedtime on school nights for 6–7 year olds was the same for boys and girls at around 8pm (8.40pm on non-school nights). Bedtimes for boys and girls were similar for all other age groups and the average bedtime increased by approximately 15 minutes per year for children (from 6-7 years up to 10-11 years), and then by 30 minutes per year for adolescents (from 12-13 years up to 16-17 years). The average 16-17 year old went to bed at around 10.15pm on school nights and between 11pm and 11.30pm on non-school nights.

The benefits of an early bedtime

UniSA's discovery of how children who regularly go to bed late are more likely to have an unhealthy diet and are more sedentary is just the latest in a number of research studies that have proven why children should have an early bedtime. Here are just a few of the other benefits of an early bedtime:

1. Better quality of sleep

Children from as young as five years old who go to bed earlier have been found to fall asleep faster. Not only that, they wake up less frequently in the middle of the night than those who go to bed later. Both toddlers and teens who go to bed early appear to have a longer sleep duration too (read: more hours of sleep).

2. They function better during the day

Any parent knows when children become tired, they get just that little bit cranky—and no fun to be around. The science also proves that children who go to bed early have better short-term and working memory, longer attention span and are able to regulate their emotions better (great news for parents).

3. It helps their brain develop better

Japanese scientists compared 18-month-olds who went to bed later than 10pm (and had longer day naps) with those who had an earlier bedtime. And while they recognised pre-existing developmental problems may cause sleep problems, they also concluded that an early bedtime helped with better neurodevelopmental outcomes, that is, motor function, language and social function.

4. They are less likely to be overweight

According to a study, four- and five-year-old children who go to bed at 9pm or later are more likely to be obese and to gain weight over time. The results are not surprising, when you consider UniSA's findings that children with later bedtimes ate more junk food and less fruit and vegetables.

Read: Some of our team's bedtime routines for their children

Melody Tan is project manager of the Mums At The Table multimedia initiative. She lives in Sydney with her husband and their preschooler son.