It may seem like a good idea: 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 3 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 pediatrician 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
of Washington colleague Dr. Darcy Thompson that
found that children under age 3 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.
Christakis and Thompson examined data from a national
health survey of children aged 4 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
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
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 nighttime awakenings,
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
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.
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 pediatrician at the Great
Falls Clinic in Great
Falls, Mont., 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 schoolers,
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:
- Set a regular time for bed each night and stick to
- 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
- Keep the noise level low.