Medicine Today: A regular bedtime may make your child smarter

With busy schedules, millions of Americans have irregular sleep schedules. A new study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reports that passing on this trait to our children, particularly when they are young, may hurt their development.


The science of sleep remains a mystery in medicine. We know from personal experience that sleep restores the body and helps us function the next day. However, our progress in understanding the inner workings of sleep, unlike those of heart disease or diabetes, has been limited.

Dr. Yvonne Kelly, a professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University College of London studied the association between a regular bedtime and standardized test scores among children in the United Kingdom. They followed over 11,000 children from age 3 to age 7. They found that 7-year-olds who had an irregular bedtime were more likely to skip breakfast, read less and watch TV longer. They also found that an irregular bedtime at age 3 resulted in lower scores on math, reading and reasoning tests at age 7. This relationship remained even after adjustment for differences like household income, parent’s education level and the presence of a TV in the bedroom.

Kelly and colleagues argue that a regular bedtime, particularly at a young age, results in better development.

Readers should be aware that the study has many limitations. The study was unable to assess the number of hours a child slept or the child’s quality of sleep, factors that many would argue has a greater impact on development than going to sleep at a set time. In addition, the data was dependent on responses from parents, who may be inclined to overestimate the regularity of their child’s bedtime.

In my own experience, patients admitted to the hospital who are able to get a good night’s sleep often do better. Studies have also shown that sleep enhances the brain’s ability to learn, and children are in a constant phase of learning.

Although Kelly’s study is not a slam dunk, inherently her argument makes sense and one that I advocate.