The Simple Habit That Makes Kids Smarter

Helping your children gain a mental edge—and superior math and reading skills—may be as easy as tucking them into bed at the same time every night, according to research conducted at University College London.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, involved over 11,000 children at the ages of three, five, and seven. Researchers found that youngsters who went to bed at irregular hours scored lower in cognitive tests for reading, math, and spatial abilities. They noted that sleep is crucial for brain plasticity—the brain’s ability to change and modify its structure—which allows us to learn.

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Irregular Sleep Adds Up

The effect was cumulative. Girls who had never gone to bed at a consistent time scored significantly lower in all tests. They also scored lower if they only had irregular bedtime hours at the age of seven.

Boys, on the other hand, reported lower scores when they’d had irregular bedtime hours during only two of the three age periods (such as ages three and five, five and seven, or three and seven). Non-regular bedtimes only at the age of five led to lower reading scores in girls and lower math scores in boys.

Study participants were part of the Millennium Cohort Study, a long-term study of infants born in the U.K. between the years 2000 and 2002. They were tested by being asked to read a series of words on a card out loud, complete number-based tasks, and construct designs by putting together solid cubes with patterns while being monitored for speed and accuracy.

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Sleep Tips for Kids

The amount of sleep little ones need varies from child to child, so it’s best to observe their mood and behavior. However, the National Sleep Foundation makes the following recommendations for each age group:

  • Newborn babies – 12 to 18 hours of sleep
  • 1 to 3-year-olds – 12 to 14 hours of sleep
  • Preschoolers – 11 to 13 hours of sleep
  • 5 to 10-year-olds – 10 to 11 hours of sleep
  • Teenagers – 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep

Creating a sleep-friendly routine can help your children get the zzz’s they need. Consider if these expert tips could make it easier for your kids to drift into dreamland:  

  • Turn off electronic devices—such as videogames and television—about a half hour or an hour before bedtime. “This gives the brain time to relax, making it easier to fall asleep,” Dr. Suresh Kotogal wrote for the Mayo Clinic.  Kotogal further recommends keeping computers and televisions out of a child’s bedroom.
  • Make sure your child avoids caffeine. Soft drinks like cola are obvious culprits, but beware of sugary treats like chocolate, too. Cutting out caffeine for several hours before bedtime, or even entirely, can help kids fall asleep quicker and sleep more soundly.
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment. A room that is dark, cool and free of distracting noise is conducive to sleep.
  • Bedtime stories and lullabies are soothing pre-sleep rituals for younger children. As kids get older, encourage them to continue reading or having their own quiet time before bed. A relaxing nightly routine free of stimulating activities can help your child prepare mentally for sleep.

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