Does an irregular bedtime cause changes to a child’s brain development?

New research out today has again been hideously mis-reported by the mainstream media.

What the research didn’t say:

  • If children go to bed too late they won’t be as intelligent as they would be if they went to bed earlier
  • If babies and toddlers do not sleep through the night their brains won’t be as good when they are older.
  • Irregular bedtimes WILL DEFINITELY cause brains to not develop properly
  • Babies, toddlers and older children suffer if they go to bed late or wake in the night
  • Babies, toddlers and older children should be trained to sleep ASAP.
  • Infant and child sleep is massively problematic these days and most parents need ‘an expert’ to ‘fix’ their kids
  • All kids are equally affected by sleep (lack of) in the same way
  • All babies/toddlers/children need 12 hrs sleep per night.

Though – these were the prevelant messages that spread across the press, radio and TV today. THEY ARE WRONG.

sleep research regular bedtime, toddler child baby sleep brain development learning news study

What the research DID say:

  • This particular study found that children who had irregular bedtimes performed slightly less well on a small handful of mental tasks than those with regular bedtimes.
  • That in this particular study this effect was stronger for girls than boys
  • The strongest effect was seen with 3 year olds
  • The results showed a MODEST (small) difference and in most cases were NON SIGNIFICANT!!
  • That the researchers extrapolated the results and IN THEIR OPINION ONLY said that they thought irregular bedtimes MAY cause changes in brain development. Their exact words were “The consistent nature of bedtimes during early childhood is related to cognitive performance. Given the importance of early child development, there may be knock on effects for health throughout life.” 
  • Note they DID NOT study the effect of bedtime on brain development in any way shape or form!!

Potential Issues with the Research

  • All self reported/by parents who simply answered if their child “always”, “usually”, “sometimes” or “never” had a regular bedtime, this is a really unscientific and unreliable way of looking at things and it’s likely that parents would go for a result somewhere in the middle (usually and sometimes) rather than admit “never”. It also relies on their memory and view of events.
  • No concrete brain tests, like imaging involved, just simple ‘tests’. Most test results were either non-significant or only slightly so.
  • No wider investigation of parenting styles, diet, demographics, schooling etc that could also impact – e.g: higher educated/middle class parents may be more likely to stick to a regular bedtime  – but their children are also more likely to be privately educated and well nourished and perhaps more likely to be read bedtime stories

sleep research regular bedtime, toddler child baby sleep brain development learning news study

Now, I’m not dismissing this research, nor am I disagreeing with it (because I do actually think a consistent bedtime routine is a good thing!). It’s really interesting and will hopefully open the doors to more, I’d love to see some longitudinal research and concrete data, brain scans for instance tracking sleep and the effects on behaviour throughout life. I’d particularly love to see research into the norms of infant and child sleep – average length of time & awakenings, parental assistance necessary and when true ‘self soothing’ kicks in to really nomalise sleep expectations.This data is sorely missing and desperately needed. BUT – I do have mega issues with how it’s been reported and the conclusions drawn by mostly completely unqualified people who have probably not even read the original paper!

I’d also love to see the long term effects of sleep training studied in depth so that parents can weigh up the pros and cons, particularly with regards to brain development and personalities.

In truth I’m a bit ‘blah’ about this recent research, it tells me more about general parenting styles than sleep, doesn’t provide any real help for parents and is open to a great deal of misuse (how many of you have seen ‘the baby trainers’ en force on TV today?), it seems to have given ‘the trainers’ carte blanche to peddle their baby training wares on the back of it (the irony that they probably haven’t read it -or any other paediatric sleep research is not lost on me!).

What I do know is that having a regular pattern to the evenings is amazingly helpful for sleep, whether we are talking about 6 month olds or 6 year olds. I speak about this in depth in my new ToddlerCalm book and discuss some great research that is really useful to translate into practical tips for parents, as well as lots of information about the science of toddler and child sleep.

If you do have sleep concerns about your baby, toddler or older child then get in touch with your nearest BabyCalm or ToddlerCalm teacher. Rapidly expanding worldwide our three hour GENTLE (and we really are, we don’t just use the word because it’s trendy and then teach you a version of controlled crying), evidence based workshops are only £35 (in the UK, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, UAE, Dutch, Irish prices vary in local currencies) and provide real practical help for parents struggling with their child’s sleep.

Our Baby Sleep Workshops are suitable for parents of babies aged 4-12mths and our ToddlerCalm sleep workshops provide help for parents of 1 to 5 yr old children, available in over 150 locations worldwide! We don’t guarantee to get your little darling sleeping from 7-7 within a week, but we do make a real difference to families, helping you to understand and gently manipulate your child’s sleep to create a happier, less sleep deprived family!



Kelly, Y, Kelly, J, Sacker, A. “Time for bed: associations with cognitive performance in 7-year-old children: a longitudinal population-based study” J Epidemiol Community Health doi:10.1136/jech-2012-202024

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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