The Sleep DownUnder 2015 conference heard getting children to bed early may be even more important than ensuring they have a long sleep, according to a study.

Dr Quach and colleagues from Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and University of New England studied 3600 children from the Growing Up in Australia study. The children  questioned 3 times in their first 9 years of life, is the largest of its kind and the first to decisively show how crucial it is to get young children to bed earlier.

“This is valuable information for parents, many of whom will know about how important it is for their kids to get lots of sleep overall but not much about how significant the bedtime itself is,” says lead researcher Dr Jon Quach, of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The University of Melbourne.

The researchers analysed sleep and lifestyle data collected from parents of children at ages 4-5, 6-7 and 8-9 who participated in the Growing Up in Australia study.

Children were divided into 4 groups, those who were early to bed and early to rise, early to bed and late to rise, late to bed and late to rise and late to bed and early to rise. Children who were early to bed were asleep by 8.30pm, while late-to-bed kids fell asleep after this time.

Quality of life

Results show children who are early-to-sleep have better health-related quality of life; and their mothers have improved mental health, compared with children who are late-to-sleep.

“So mums and dads, getting kids to bed early is not just great for them. It’s good for you too,” Dr Quach says. “These benefits were seen in all early-to-bed kids regardless of whether they woke early or slept late.

Sleep and obesity

The study found no link between  children’s cognition and learning, behaviour or weight. However, South Australian research presented at the same conference claims that being early to bed and early to rise may trim the waistlines of older children.

Lead researcher Professor Tim Olds, from the University of South Australia in Adelaide, analysed diet, bedtime and wake up time data collected from 2200 children aged 9-16.

Results showed adolescents who went to sleep late and woke late had higher BMIs than those who fell asleep earlier and woke earlier, even if they had the same amount of sleep overall.

“The late sleepers were considerably more likely to be obese, have a poorer diet, get more screen time and less physical activity than other kids,” says Prof Olds, from the University’s School of Health Sciences.

However, it remains to be seen whether bedtime influences weight or whether, as is more likely, obese teens gain weight thanks to a lifetime of unhealthy habits, like sleeping late and eating poorly, that all interact together, he says.

Bedtime bonus

Taken together, these large Australian studies suggest that kids’ bedtimes have a deeper impact on children’s and parents’ lives than previously thought.

Dr Sarah Biggs, chair of the conference hosted by the Australasian Sleep Association, says the discovery is good news for many parents, many of whom routinely deal with sleep problems.

Timing matters

“Previous studies show almost a third of Australian children have a sleep problem as pre-schoolers or during their early years of school,” Dr Biggs says. “What this latest research seems to be saying is that healthy sleep is not only about how much a child gets, but also about the timing of when that sleep happens.”

Presentations at the conference also focused on other problems such as insomnia, snoring, narcolepsy and coffee addiction through to the damaging effects of cigarettes, video games, mobile phones and fights before bedtime.

Lifestyle issues

Among the discoveries are a raft of new ideas to help people sleep better, including a meditation technique, a diet rich in veggies and a pre-bed mug of milk extracted from sleepy cows.

Other studies demonstrated that many are sleep deprived, particularly students and shift workers.

The 27th annual scientific Sleep DownUnder 2015 conference began on Thursday at Melbourne Convention Centre and concluded on October 24.