It may seem like a good idea to use a bit of TV viewing to help your young child get to sleep. But a growing body of research is finding that infants and children under the age of three who watch TV - even too much TV during the day - struggle with interrupted sleep and irregular bed and naptime schedules.
"We know that many, many parents rely on TV and video as part of their child's sleep routine," said Dr Dimitri Christakis, a paediatrician at the University of Washington and co-author of "The Elephant in the Living Room: Make TV Work for Your Kids".
"Watching television before bed makes it more difficult for children to fall asleep," he added. "Scientific data support that."
As proof, Christakis pointed to a recent study he led with University of Washington colleague Dr Darcy Thompson that found that children under age three who watch television are at higher risk of disturbed sleep. Other studies have looked at the effects of TV viewing on older children and teens, and also found a link between TV, poor sleep and later bedtimes.
How the study was done
Christakis and Thompson examined data from a national health survey of children aged four months to 35 months, and evaluated parent interviews for more than 2 000 children.
The result: 27 percent of the youngsters had irregular bedtime schedules, and almost 34 percent had irregular nap schedules.
But here's the kicker - the number of hours of television viewed was associated with a greater likelihood of an irregular sleep schedule, although no cause-and-effect relationship could be definitively established.
On average, the babies younger than 12 months watched 0.9 hours of television; those 12 months to 23 months watched 1.6 hours daily; and those 24 months to 35 months watched 2.3 hours a day.
TV leads to irregular sleep habits
Thompson explained that a regular sleep schedule is important, because it influences the quality and quantity of sleep that children get. And, healthy sleep habits can prevent problems such as bedtime resistance or night-time awakenings, she said.
Thompson said one possible explanation is that television viewing causes irregular sleep schedules. Another is that irregular sleep leads to more TV viewing, a kind of vicious cycle.
Another uncertainty is whether the timing of television viewing, say, before bedtime, has an impact on sleep. In theory, Thompson reasoned, children who watch a lot of shows with content that is violent or inappropriate for their age could have sleep disturbances no matter when they watched those shows.
Others would argue that viewing disturbing content before bedtime impedes sleep.
'Limit TV time to two hours a day'
The bottom line, according to Christakis: "If your kid is having a sleep problem, look at TV habits and see if it is playing a role. There is no need to modify TV if your kid is not having sleep problems."
Dr Nancy Maynard, a paediatrician at the Great Falls Clinic in Great Falls, Montana, agreed. "I do tell parents it is good to limit the amount of TV during the day to less than two hours of screen time, including TV, computer, video games," she said.
"And don't use TV as a go-to-sleep aid," Maynard advised. That holds true even for high school children, she added.
Maynard said she understood why the parents of younger children might be tempted to park their kids in front of the TV right before bedtime. "It gets them to stay in one place. But it's not helping them in making changes the brain needs to make to the transition to sleep. And it may make it worse. The visual stimulation amps them up."
"I think of it as going to the state fair," Maynard tells parents when advising them not to let their children watch TV before bed. "You are on the midway, with all the lights and the noise. Walking away from that, I don't know how many people are relaxed."
Are you struggling with a young child who's troubled by troubled sleep? The National Institutes of Health offers these suggestions:
- February 2008
- Set a regular time for bed each night and stick to it.
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine, such as giving your child a warm bath or reading him or her a story.
- Make after-dinner playtime a relaxing time. Too much activity close to bedtime can keep children awake.
- Avoid feeding children big meals close to bedtime.
- Avoid giving children anything with caffeine less than six hours before bedtime.
- Set the bedroom temperature so that it's comfortable - not too warm and not too cold.
- Make sure the bedroom is dark. If necessary, use a small nightlight.
- Keep the noise level low.
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