How closely related are a good night’s sleep and good behavior?

A study recently published in the journal Pediatrics found that 7-year-old children with regular bedtimes are less likely to display behavioral problems during their waking hours than those children without fixed bedtimes.

Interesting, but not exactly earth-shattering, news.

“I don’t think that anyone with a 7-year–old child at home will be surprised to learn that well-rested children are typically better behaved,” says Dennis Rosen, MD, associate medical director of The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital. “While it’s nice to have the scientific data, these findings will probably only reinforce what most parents already know.”

While the study may not hold any breakthrough revelations, it did reveal that behavioral issues in children without set bedtimes could be reduced or eliminated once bedtimes are introduced. In other words, even if your child doesn’t have a bedtime right now, it’s not too late to start enforcing one, and doing so could correct or lessen behavior problems your child may be having.

So, if behavior is becoming a concern in your house and your child doesn’t currently adhere to a regular bedtime, now might be a good time to start.

According to Rosen, consistency is key in setting up bedtimes and helping kids stick to them. To do so, he suggests the following:

  • Establish regular routines in the evening. Start by eating dinner at a set time, followed by activities in a predictable pattern (homework, bath, stories, bed) to help children get into a routine. Once they know what to expect at night, they’ll be more likely to unwind as lights out approaches.
  • Avoid bright light exposure for three hours before bed. Too much light stimulates the neurons in the brain that control the sleep-wake cycle, and the more light you are exposed to, the more awake you become. Instead, turn off the bright overhead lights and switch to dimmer lighting in the late evening for a calming effect.
  • Avoid overly stimulating activities like TV or videogames in the last two to three hours of the day.
Dennis Rosen, MD

But even the most consistent bedtime isn’t going to do much if the child’s bedroom isn’t conducive to sleep. To create a sleep-friendly environment that encourages rest, Rosen suggests you make your child’s bedroom:

  • dark and quiet
  • free from TV, videogames or electronic devices
  • pet-free (animals jumping up and down on a bed and/or demanding attention can be very distracting)

While parents cannot control the exact moment a child drifts off to sleep, but they can control for wake-up times. Exercise that authority to reinforce healthy sleep patterns. “Parents can send their kids to bed, but they can’t force them to fall asleep,” Rosen says. “Parents do, however, have much more control over when their children awaken in the morning. Keeping to a consistent wake-up time can help establish more standardized sleep patterns.”

It’s also important to keep those patterns all the time, not just on school nights. If your child sticks to a bedtime Monday through Friday, but not on the weekends, it may undo the five nights of regimented sleep he or she got during the week.

“Adhering to a strict sleep schedule during the week while ignoring it on the weekend can uncouple a child’s internal clock from the external one,” Rosen says. “This can lead to a form of jet-lag, which can result in difficulty waking up on time, poor school performance, and behavioral problems.”

And while this study focused on young children, Rosen says that disrupted sleep can lead to emotional and academic problems in teenagers as well. Adolescents should ideally get nine hours of sleep each night, but with school, family and social obligations few teenagers are hitting that mark, making a lack of sleep a contributor to many problems teenagers may face in terms of their physical and mental health.

Lack of sleep can affect academic and athletic performance in teens.

But unlike young children, setting a bedtime for a teenager and justifying it with an “It’s my house we go by my rules” attitude isn’t likely to quickly lull a 16 year old off to dreamland. In addition to setting rules about caffeine consumption and media use at night—the farther from bedtime you ban these activities the better—Rosen suggests being open with teens about how a lack of sleep can be detrimental to them.

“Insufficient sleep is associated with weight gain, increased risk of getting sick, poor school performance, poor athletic performance, decreased libido and difficulties reading other people’s emotions, which can lead to all kinds of problems for a teenager,” Rosen says. “By engaging your teen about the importance of sleep and focusing on the issues that may directly impact his or her daily life, you’re likely to get more buy-in and better outcomes, than by simply trying to impose an earlier bedtime arbitrarily.”

To speak with Rosen or a member of his team visit the website of Boston Children’s Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders.

Need additional help getting your child to sleep? Rosen’s book, Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids, offers the latest discoveries science has made in the field of sleep, and provides dozens of ways to help your child get a better night’s rest.