Got a baby or toddler who isn’t on a regular sleep schedule? You may want to check how much TV they’re watching.

A new study links TV viewing to irregular bedtimes and naptimes in kids who are less than 3 years old. While the study did not explore why television may disrupt sleep habits, it found a correlation between the amount of television children watched and the likelihood of irregular sleep schedules.

The researchers — who included Darcy Thompson, MD, MPH, of the University of Washington’s pediatrics department — don’t blame TV for kids’ odd sleep schedules. They didn’t try to figure out which came first — TV viewing or irregular sleep schedules.

Still, Thompson and colleagues are reminding people about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for TV viewing:

—No TV for kids less than 2 years old

—Less than 2 hours per day of TV for kids aged 2 and older

“This study may add one more reason why pediatricians, parents, and society should support these guidelines for limited television viewing times,” they write in Pediatrics.

Young Children Do Not Sleep Enough

TV Study

Thompson’s study included more than 2,000 U.S. children aged 4 months to 3 years old.

The kids’ parents or guardians were interviewed by telephone. They were asked how many hours per day the children typically spend watching TV or videos, and whether the kids usually took naps and went to bed at the same time every day.

About a third of the kids had varied naptimes. A little more than a quarter had irregular bedtimes.

The researchers weighed other factors including mother’s health, education level, and social support. They concluded that “TV viewing among infants and toddlers is associated with irregular sleep schedules” for kids’ bedtimes and naptimes.

Many theories exist as to how television viewing might affect sleep. It may be that the bright lights of the television before sleep affects the sleep-wake cycle, they write. They add that children may watch programs that are developmentally inappropriate for their age, some of which have been shown to have a negative impact on their behavior, and this may also inhibit the relaxation necessary of sleep induction. But this has not been demonstrated.

The study didn’t cover kids’ sleep quality, sleep quantity, or sleep problems.

It looked at time spent in front of a TV screen. Daily viewing averages for each age group were:

—Less than 1 year: 0.9 hours

—1 to 2 years: 1.6 hours

—2 to 3 years: 2.3 hours

The researchers show that the number of hours of television watching per day was associated with both varied naptimes and varied bedtimes.

These findings are potentially important, they write, because a routine sleep schedule is a critical component of ensuring good sleep.

Is TV Really That Bad For Kids?

Sleepless Kids, Stressed Parents

“Sleep problems are very common among children,” write the researchers.

At least a quarter of kids have sleep problems, and the figure may be as high as nearly seven out of 10 kids, they note.

“Consequences for the child may include problems of mood, behavior, and learning, and poor health outcomes,” write the researchers.

Parents can suffer when kids toss and turn.

“It is also easy to imagine that a child’s sleep problem could lead to inadequate sleep for the parent, thus putting the parent at risk for, at a minimum, mood imbalances and poor parenting,” the researchers write.

The bottom line: When kids get enough good sleep, the whole family benefits, and regular sleep schedules can help.

“Adequate, high-quality sleep, promoted by routine sleep schedules, is important to the overall well-being of children and parents,” write Thompson and colleagues.

Too Much TV Can Hurt Kids at School

Other Trends

The researchers also noted a few other patterns.

Irregular naptimes were more common among the kids of unmarried parents and those noting a lack of social support.

The kids of parents with at least a high school education were more likely to have regular bedtimes.

Meal schedules also mattered. Kids with varied meal times were more likely to have irregular bedtimes and naptimes.

That’s “interesting,” write the researchers. But it doesn’t change their results or support for little to no TV time before a child’s second birthday.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Thompson, D. Pediatrics, October 2005; vol 116: pp 851-856. News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.