Why scientists say you really should maintain a simple routine with young children

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Routine has been associated with children getting more sleep, researchers say 
  • Less sleep has been linked to thinner regions of the brain linked to behaviour

For many parents, it can be difficult to maintain a regular routine with young children.

But eating as a family, regular playtime and a strict bedtime could help boost their brain development, according to a new study.

Researchers have discovered that regular family routines are linked to children getting more sleep each night.

And this has been associated with improved brain structure and emotional processing during their formative years.

Experts from Colorado State University analysed data collected on 94 children aged between five and nine from a variety of backgrounds.

Researchers found a strict bedtime could help boost your child’s brain development. Those who had less sleep were more likely to have thinner regions of the brain linked to language, controlling behaviour, sensory perception, and smaller volume of a part of the brain linked to emotion processing

They carefully measured the children’s brain structure using MRI scans, and parents were asked about their child’s sleep durations and family routines.

Questions about family routines included whether children did the same things each morning when they woke up, if parents had a regular playtime with their children after coming home from work, whether the parents read or told stories to their children regularly, if children went to bed at the same time nearly every night and whether the family ate together – and at the same time – each evening.

Analysis revealed that less frequent family routines were significantly linked to shorter sleep during the week.

Shorter sleep, in turn, was associated with changes in the child’s brain structure.

Those who had less sleep were more likely to have thinner regions of the brain linked to language, controlling behaviour, sensory perception, and smaller volume of a part of the brain linked to emotion processing.

Dr Emily Merz, who led the study, said: ‘Shorter sleep duration was significantly associated with reduced cortical thickness in frontal, temporal and parietal regions and smaller volume of the amygdala – a brain region key to emotion processing.’

The researchers said that children from lower-income families and whose parents had lower levels of education were more likely to get less sleep.

‘We also found that consistency in family routines significantly mediated those associations,’ Dr Merz added.

Analysis by Colorado State University revealed that less frequent family routines, including not eating regularly as a family, were significantly linked to shorter sleep during the week

Analysis by Colorado State University revealed that less frequent family routines, including not eating regularly as a family, were significantly linked to shorter sleep during the week

‘This might imply that socioeconomic disadvantage interferes with the consistency of family routines – potentially increasing children’s stress and reducing their sleep time, which then impacts brain development.’

The team said their research, published in the journal Brain and Behaviour, could inform programs that support children getting consistent sleep during this key age.

‘Our findings, suggest that sleep insufficiency may be associated with not only the brain’s structure but also the function of emotion processing brain circuits in children,’ Dr Merz added.

‘This may possibly explain why reduced sleep leads to greater susceptibility to negative emotions. Although most developmental studies of sleep have focused on teens, this research underscores the need to assess and support children’s sleep health prior to adolescence.’

Separate research, which will be presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Denver this week, explores how sleep deprivation in teenagers affects the way their brain works.

Scientists from the North Carolina Academy of Science discovered that teenagers who slept for a full eight hours had better cognitive scores compared to those who slept for just six hours and who had been on their phones.

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