We can all agree that sleep is a precious commodity when you have young children. So anything that interrupts it should be approached with caution. But how many of us use screen time before bed? Whether it’s watching TV, playing on our phones or laptops, or even reading a book on our e-readers.
The truth is that screens and sleep don’t mix well, especially for children who need a good night’s sleep to grow and develop properly. A recent study suggested that while some screen time may not be as bad as we thought for mental health, disrupted sleep remained a problem. And the reality is that kids spend far more time on screens than recommended.
Mama, you aren’t alone if you’ve used screen time before bed as part of your child’s evening routine. But here’s what you need to know about screens and sleep to make the best decision for your family.
Experts agree it’s best to limit screens before bed
Studies tell us that screen time before bed (watching TV, video games, phones or computers) can lead to fewer hours of sleep and more middle-of-the-night wake-ups.
Dr. Cara Goodwin, a licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling children’s author, and mother to three children, understands the challenges parents face when it comes to screen time and sleep. “Screens may be necessary to keep one child safe and occupied while they put another child to bed,” she shares with Motherly. “Older children may need to use computers and mobile devices in the evening to complete homework.”
But she also believes all parents should understand the impact screens have on sleep. “Studies consistently tell us that screen time can lead to sleep problems for children of all ages,” she says, citing a 2021 systematic review on electronics and sleep. “Screen time in the evening is associated with children having trouble falling asleep, less overall sleep, and daytime drowsiness [which is a sign of poor sleep quality].”
How does screen time affect sleep?
There are a few ways screens could be negatively impacting our kids’ sleep, according to the experts.
One is that screens can emit blue light. Blue light could suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone our bodies produce to make us feel sleepy. “Blue light helps us to stay alert which is great during the day but causes problems when computers, televisions, and other devices are used at night,” Dr. Cara explains. And it turns out that blue light is particularly disruptive to younger children’s sleep patterns.
And how does screen time affect toddlers’ sleep specifically? Dr. Cara points out that what your child watches may be exciting or scary, depending on their personality. They may be thinking about it long after the screen is off, keeping them awake or causing nightmares that wake them up in the middle of the night.
Finally, screens may inadvertently lead to less physical activity or cut into time otherwise spent on other healthy sleep habits. “Screens may replace activities that we know improve sleep, such as a consistent bedtime routine, exercise or time spent outdoors,” Dr. Cara says.
Try these wind-down alternatives to screens
Number one: it’s your choice whether or not you want to use screen time before bed. But it may be worth taking a closer look at how screens impact your child’s sleep, especially if your kiddos seem exhausted during the day or wake up often during the night.
If you’re looking for alternatives to screens, Dr. Cara recommends experimenting with other activities that can help your child wind down, like reading, taking a bath, or creative play. “All kids wind down in different ways, so I would really recommend finding what works best for your child,” she suggests.
Here are some of Dr. Cara’s tips for cutting back and finding alternatives to screens before bed (and these suggestions can help the entire family):
- Consider making it a family rule to turn off everything an hour before bed. But if that’s not possible, work on reducing total time in the evening. “Research finds that the amount of time matters, with children who use screens for the longest amount of time having the most trouble falling asleep, the most frequent nightmares, and the most daytime sleepiness,” Dr. Cara explains.
- Try podcasts, audiobooks, or meditation apps. Dr. Cara suggests using these options instead of a screen to occupy your child while you’re busy putting another child to bed or finishing up a task.
- Check the content. “Be really careful about the content of the screen time,” says Dr. Cara. She explains that research shows that kids who watch educational shows designed for children are less likely to have sleep problems (versus violent or less age-appropriate content).
For teens, she suggests monitoring social media as this appears to have the most impact on older children’s sleep.
- Keep screens out of the bedroom. “Research finds that children who sleep near televisions or devices sleep significantly less,” she shares. “Children with both a device and a television in their bedroom sleep even less.”
Screens are a big part of life, but we can choose when, how, and where we use them
A consistent bedtime routine that doesn’t include screens may be just what your family needs for better sleep. “Regardless of evening screen use, make sure your child is engaging in a consistent bedtime routine that doesn’t involve screens.” Dr. Cara says. A bedtime routine is essential for winding down at any age.
Plus, reading a book with your little one before bed may mean you get a few extra snuggles—which is always a bonus.
Dr. Cara Goodwin, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, bestselling author of the children’s book, What To Do When You Feel Like Hitting, and a mother to three children. Dr. Goodwin specializes in translating research into accurate, useful, and relevant information for parents through her non-profit organization,Parenting Translator. (Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/parentingtranslator/?hl=en)
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