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October 20, 2013

CEPEDA: The elusive night of good sleep

(Continued)

Researchers from University College in London collected statistics from children at ages 3, 5 and 7, and their behavior was rated by their mothers and teachers.

The study found that kids who went through early childhood without a set bedtime had more hyperactivity, conduct problems, conflicts with other children their age and emotional difficulties.

“Not having fixed bedtimes, accompanied by a constant sense of flux, induces a state of body and mind akin to jet lag and this matters for healthy development and daily functioning,” said lead author Yvonne Kelly in the study’s news release.

Previous research has found that children with irregular bedtimes perform worse on tests in reading, math and spatial awareness than those with stable bedtimes.

And children who had irregular bedtimes or went to bed after 9 p.m. were more likely to be from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

The characteristic chaos of generational poverty supports that data point. Ruby K. Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” describes homes beset by poverty as lacking in any type of formal structure that would call for set mealtimes or bedtimes.

And there is a racial divide in sleep. For years, researchers have known that, in the U.S., non-Hispanic whites get more and better-quality sleep than people of other races, with African-Americans getting the least amount. There are also documented cultural differences between how different racial and ethnic groups perceive and cope with sleeplessness.

Some studies have even pointed to a possible link between this sleep disparity and the higher incidences of diseases in minorities.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.

According to the British study, children who were put on a strict regular sleeping schedule showed improvements in their conduct and peer relationships. And the authors noted “clear opportunities for interventions” — such as having pediatricians “prescribe” bedtimes and suggest effective sleep routines to young parents.

Now if modern medicine could just find a cure for insomnia and night restlessness, we could all sleep better and start off our days on a more level playing field.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. She can be reached at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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