National Voices

Saturday, Oct 19 2013 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: Hey kids, here's why you have a bedtime

I don't remember which one exactly, but it was one of my early elementary school teachers -- probably well near the end of her rope with my alternating frenetic chatter and yawning lethargy -- who drilled into me the famous adage: "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."

I tried to sleep as a child, I really did. But it never came easily.

I'd be in bed for hours, watching the minutes flip over on the analog clock across the room. With excruciating slowness the numbers would flutter from 8 to 9, then from 9 to 10 and again through 11.

So many nights I was still wide awake at midnight, trying to gin up conversation with my exhausted parents who slept in a twin bed just a few feet away.

They learned not to talk about anything important at bedtime.

Or I'd fall asleep early in the night only to awaken in the wee hours, sitting up in bed in the dark, talking to myself in order to stave off the boredom.

The next day I was quite the handful at school. I'd go in strong in the morning, hopped up on ultra-sugary cereal, and push my teachers to the limit by constantly being out of my seat, talking too much and asking too many questions.

Oh, and there was the whistling. My fourth-grade teacher would regularly growl, "Don't whistle, Esther, it makes the angels cry."

Then in the afternoon, during social studies class, I'd fall asleep. Some days, I would start in a sickly fog and rev up after lunch. The net result was, at least, consistent. Throughout my elementary-school experience, teachers, lunchroom monitors and principals repeatedly warned me that I needed to learn to exercise self-control.

These memories -- and not at all distant, since I still suffer from frequent bouts of insomnia -- bubbled up the other day when I ran across a new child sleep study.

Researchers from University College in London collected statistics from children at ages 3, 5 and 7, and their behavior was rated by their mothers and teachers.

The study found that kids who went through early childhood without a set bedtime had more hyperactivity, conduct problems, conflicts with other children their age and emotional difficulties.

"Not having fixed bedtimes, accompanied by a constant sense of flux, induces a state of body and mind akin to jet lag and this matters for healthy development and daily functioning," said lead author Yvonne Kelly in the study's news release.

Previous research has found that children with irregular bedtimes perform worse on tests in reading, math and spatial awareness than those with stable bedtimes.

And children who had irregular bedtimes or went to bed after 9 p.m. were more likely to be from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

The characteristic chaos of generational poverty supports that data point. Ruby K. Payne's "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" describes homes beset by poverty as lacking in any type of formal structure that would call for set mealtimes or bedtimes.

And there is a racial divide in sleep. For years, researchers have known that, in the U.S., non-Hispanic whites get more and better-quality sleep than people of other races, with African-Americans getting the least amount. There are also documented cultural differences between how different racial and ethnic groups perceive and cope with sleeplessness.

Some studies have even pointed to a possible link between this sleep disparity and the higher incidences of diseases in minorities.

It's not all doom and gloom, however.

According to the British study, children who were put on a strict regular sleeping schedule showed improvements in their conduct and peer relationships. And the authors noted "clear opportunities for interventions" --such as having pediatricians "prescribe" bedtimes and suggest effective sleep routines to young parents.

Now if modern medicine could just find a cure for insomnia and night restlessness, we could all sleep better and start off our days on a more level playing field.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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