Catching zzz's

Your Bedtime Routine Might Be Hurting Your Toddler's Development, Study Suggests

A new study found that there was a big difference between passive sleep techniques like reading a book and active ones like going for a spin around the block.

mother and child daughter reading book in bed before going to sleep

If a quick spin around the block is your go-to bedtime method to lull a fussy toddler into sleep, you might be setting yourself up for even more fussiness down the road, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Researchers examined the bedtime routines of families to determine the impact of “passive” sleep-inducing techniques (singing, reading, snuggling) versus “active” sleep-inducing techniques (car rides, playing, taking walks) in order to determine how those routines might impact their toddler’s development.

Questionnaires were distributed to 841 households across 14 countries, including the U.S., and caregivers were asked to describe both their bedtime techniques and their toddler’s temperaments.

“Parental sleeping techniques are correlated with children’s sleep quality, and the importance of cultural context in child development has been long recognized,” study co-author Christie Pham, a doctoral student at Washington State University, said in a statement. “We wanted to examine whether cross-cultural differences in parental sleep-supporting strategies account for differences in toddler temperament.”

The team found that different sleep-inducing techniques, both within the same culture and across cultures, were correlated with different temperament traits. Because a number of the differences held true both within and between cultures, cultural differences may be excluded as the cause for the differences in toddler temperament.

Caregivers who practice “passive” sleep techniques reported more sociability in their children, whereas those who practice “active” techniques reported fussier or more difficult toddlers.

“Our study shows that a parent’s sleep-supporting techniques are substantially associated with their child’s temperament traits across cultures, potentially impacting their development,” said Pham.

The team also found that cultures that lean toward more passive techniques reported less fussiness and higher sociability as a whole.

“Our results demonstrate the importance of sleep promotion and suggest that parental sleep practices could be potential targets for interventions to mitigate risk posed by challenging temperament profiles across cultures,” concluded Pham.

The results of the study provide food for thought, but more research is needed to determine the extent of the correlation. Researchers also noted limitations of the study that could have affected the outcome. Caregiver questionnaires provided the team with self-reported results, which are subjective within each family. Similarly, the study didn’t account for sleep problems as a causative factor for fussiness or difficult temperaments. The study was also limited by the number of participants, though the cross-cultural perspective was novel.

Experts suggest establishing a predictable and soothing bedtime routine as the most important factor in helping your child achieve easy and restful sleep. Low lighting, a comfortable sleeping spot, and low-energy activities like reading and singing will help children wind down and prepare for sleep. Energetic play, screens, and activities that involve active engagement can prolong the onset of sleep, potentially resulting in a tired, fussy child the next day.