In a new Canadian study, simple encouragement wasn’t good enough to show an improvement in sleep duration.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated May 25, 2017
Floral Field Pillowfort

Think your kid isn’t getting enough sleep? You may need to get tough. Children are more likely to meet recommended sleep guidelines when parents enforce rules about weeknight bedtime, according to a new study from the Canadian organization Public Health Ontario. Simply encouraging them to follow regular bedtime routines, on the other hand, was less effective.

The new study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, was undertaken because “we know that both young kids and adolescents aren’t getting enough sleep,” says co-author Dan Harrington, manager of epidemiology and evaluation, health promotion, chronic disease, and injury prevention at Public Health Ontario.

Children’s sleep duration has decreased by about 30 to 60 minutes in recent decades, the study notes, and recent research estimates that 31 perecnt of school-aged kids and 26 percent of adolescents in Canada are sleep deprived. This “sleepidemic,” as the study refers to it, extends to American children as well.

To see if some of the things parents do to support their children work better than others, Harrington and his team asked more than 1,600 parents, all of whom had at least one child age 5 to 17, about how much sleep their kids got and how they supported sleep behaviors in their homes.

For weeknights, between 68 and 93 percent of parents reported that their child met government sleep guidelines, depending on the child’s age. (More 5- to 9-year-olds met the guidelines than did older kids, which may be a result of their natural tendency to stay up later at night.) Those numbers dropped to between 50 and 86 percent for weekends.

Overall, parents did a good job of recognizing and supporting the benefits of a good night’s sleep, the study authors say. Around 94 percent reported encouraging their child to go to bed at a specific time, and just over 84 percent said they enforced bedtime rules. (The study questions didn’t get much more specific than that, and it was up to the parents to decide what constituted “encouraging” versus “enforcing.”)

While both behaviors are good steps in the right direction, there was a clear difference, says Harrington—even after adjusting for factors such as age and gender of the child, parental education, and household income: Kids were 59 percent more likely to meet sleep guidelines on weekdays when their parents enforced bedtimes, rather than encouraged them.

Surprisingly, neither rules nor encouragement about limiting electronic screens in the bedroom seemed to have an effect on children’s sleep duration. This may be because parents have limited supervision over the use of screens behind closed bedroom doors, the authors write, or the fact that restricting these types of media may only make them more enticing.

Sleep duration on weekend nights also didn’t seem to be affected by enforcement or encouragement of bedtime rules—possibly because parents exercise less control over children’s schedules on the weekends and give them more discretionary time.

Because the study relied on parents’ memories to recall (and answer honestly about) their own behaviors and their kids’ sleep habits—and because the researchers didn’t directly measure sleep duration or quality—they can’t say for sure that bedtime enforcement can lead to better sleep or healthier kids.

But sleep is increasingly recognized as an important factor for a number of health-related outcomes, says Harrington, including weight, emotional regulation, and academic achievement. “We hope this research is moving toward an understanding of what parents can do to help their kids achieve the recommended duration of sleep and also good quality sleep, as well.”

Harrington acknowledges that there is are no “correct” bedtime routines or rules for all families, and that these results only show what worked best at a population level—not for individual parents and kids.

But there is one thing he can encourage all parents to do. “Become familiar with the sleep guidelines of the age of your child,” he says, “and make decisions that work best for your family to achieve those recommendations.”