What if I told you that there was something in your house that was causing your child to be more irritable, impatient, with unpredictable behavior in and out of school, resulting in difficulty learning.  A substance that may worsen, trigger or mimic ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) symptoms?  What if I told you this same substance was also impairing your child’s growth and setting the foundation for obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes later in life.  What would you do? Obviously you would take every measure possible to remove this offending agent.  Maybe you would check the house for lead or have your drinking water and even the air you breathe in your home evaluated.  Now what if I told you it was not something your child was eating, drinking, or breathing, but instead something you and most South Asian parents were doing to their children every night that was the cause?

I’m talking about sleep depriving our kids with irregular and late bedtimes. Children overall are more sleep deprived than ever, and Indian and Asian children unfortunately lead the pack.  A study conducted by researcher Jodi Mindell of over 28,000 infants and toddlers from around the world showed that Indian and Asian kids slept significantly fewer hours than their Caucasian counterparts.  They consistently had some of the latest bedtimes, typically after 10pm.

Late bedtimes are not the only problem.  It appears irregular bedtimes may have an even more negative impact.  What’s the impact of irregular bedtimes in kids?  A recent study done on over 10,000 British children aged 3,5, and 7 showed clearly that inconsistent bedtimes led to significant behavior problems when children were rated by parents and teachers. Specifically children with inconsistent bedtimes exhibited more hyperactivity and trouble with social and emotional behavior.  Although sleep deprived adults may more commonly report fatigue, sleep deprived children typically exhibit hyperactivity and emotional lability.  Fortunately behavior scores improved significantly after consistent bedtimes were implemented.

Primary causes and some suggestions for irregular bedtimes are as follows:

  • It’s Cultural:   It’s not uncommon for a 4 or 5 year old Indian child to go to bed at 10pm or later.  If you see your friends and family doing it, you may think it’s normal, but it clearly isn’t.  Break out of the norm and prioritize your child’s sleep.

  • Overscheduling: Many parents overschedule their kids with multiple activities and academic enrichment programs in an effort to boost their child’s brain power.  If this leads to consistently later bedtimes, then this effort is backfiring.  No class or activity can come close to the brain enhancing effects of sufficient sleep which actually lets your child absorb and retain more information with improved attention in the classroom.  Numerous studies show that increasing sleep time improves grades and test scores in children and adults.  Organize your child’s schedule in a way that protects their bedtime.

  • Family pressure: Often children are kept up to greet a parent arriving late from work.  I completely understand a parent’s need to see their child after a long, hard workday, but if this is happening routinely ask yourself if it is worth sacrificing something so valuable to your child’s physical, emotional, and intellectual development?  We make so many sacrifices for our children’s well-being, and not keeping your child up after returning late from work could be one of the most important ones you can make.

  • Social pressure:  Occasional late night social events may not be disruptive.  However, if your child is being kept up far beyond their normal bedtimes every weekend this can be a problem.  Significant bedtime deviations disrupt your child’s sleep rhythm, similar to the effects of jet lag.  A common pattern is a late Friday and/or Saturday bedtime followed by an earlier Sunday school night bedtime.   Try to keep bedtimes as consistent as you can through weekends, holidays and summer vacations.

  • Overstimulation: Many kids are hyperactive before bedtime rather than calm and relaxed.  Often this is due to excessive stimulation from evening screen time, social time, or sugar.  You need to let your child wind down so they fall asleep more easily.  Initiate a calmer routine like a warm bath or shower followed by some reading time and turn off all screens at least 1 hour before bedtime.  Don’t feed your child sugary bedtime snacks which only make overstimulation worse.

Children’s sleep needs vary based on age.  Elementary/middle school-age kids need approximately 11 hours of sleep, while teens require at least nine hours of shuteye.  Discuss specifics with your pediatrician.  Many parents feel like their child does “fine” with their late and irregular sleep schedules.  However keep in mind that even though their behavior may seem acceptable to you, you may be having a negative impact on their growth and development.  The majority of growth hormone production occurs during sleep, so sleep deprivation may mean growth deprivation.   Now that you know the tremendous benefits of sleep on mind and body, make it a priority not just for your kids, but for the entire family.