How TV Affects Your Toddler or Preschooler’s Sleep

TV and Toddler Preschooler Sleep

When my oldest was born, I was determined to be the “perfect” mom. I really was confident that if I simply did everything “right”, I could produce a child prodigy, no problem at all. He’d play multiple instruments! He would excel at every sport he tried! I’d be listening to him reading me chapter books at age 4! He’d nap like a champ and be sleeping through the night by 8 weeks!

I had some grand plans about TV, too: he wouldn’t watch it. Ever.

Needless to say, the past 6 years have provided me with quite a reality check! My oldest son is funny and creative and handsome and smart, but he hasn’t achieved prodigy status (yet! 😉 )

And my “no TV ever” plan? Ha! Not exactly. I try to limit my kids’ exposure to TV, but I’ve learned (as I’m sure many of you have) that sometimes, a 30-minute cartoon can be a total lifesaver, for me and for my kids.

The Truth About TV & Sleep

A recent study conducted by the University of Auckland in New Zealand reveals proof that media use before naps or bed is terrible for sleep — for both children and adults.

The study noted how much time children and teens spent playing video games and watching TV in the 90 minutes leading up to their bedtimes, and then tracked how long it took them to fall asleep. Their conclusion: those children who watched more TV and played more video games before going to bed took longer to fall asleep than those who watched less, or none at all.

This is big news for those families that make television a regular part of their toddlers’ and preschoolers’ nap time or bedtime routines. If you keep a television in your little one’s room, and allow him or her to watch TV right before naps or bed, be aware that doing so could be making it harder to fall asleep.

Why Does Watching TV Before Naps and Bed Make It Harder to Fall Asleep?

Researchers who conducted the study report that when children spend time watching television and playing video games, it arouses, or awakens, their brains; that kind of arousal makes it that much harder for those same children to relax and fall asleep quickly.

Researchers also indicated that the backlighting from TV and gaming system screens can affect children’s circadian rhythms. Remember, our circadian rhythms are responsible for telling us when it’s time to fall asleep and time to wake up, so anything that throws off our circadian rhythms throws off sleep, too.

Nicole’s Note:
“Speaking of circadian rhythm, allowing your child to watch TV too early in the morning can perpetuate early rising.”

What Happens If My Toddler or Preschooler Doesn’t Get Enough Sleep?

The study reported that children who spent 30 minutes or more watching TV and playing video games before bed ended up getting an hour less sleep each week overall. That may not sound like much, but healthcare providers confirm that over time, this chronic sleep deprivation takes its toll.

And chronic sleep deprivation spells big problems for kids. We’ve presented several articles highlighting the consequences that a persistent lack of sleep can have for a toddler or preschooler:

  • A lack of sleep can contribute to behavioral problems in toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged children.
  • Sleep disorders that cause sleep deprivation, like sleep apnea and Restless Leg Syndrome, have been linked to ADHD diagnoses. TV won’t cause sleep disorders, of course, but we need to maximize sleep in these children.
  • Sleep deprivation can lead to depression in young children.
  • A persistent lack of sleep can contribute to young children becoming overweight and obese.

Bottom line: chronic sleep deprivation is terrible for a toddler’s or preschooler’s overall health. As Dr. Roya Samuels, a pediatrician who contributed to the study, points out,

“Sleep is just as important in terms of growth and development as nutrition. Kids need adequate sleep to grow emotionally, physically and mentally.”

TV Is Part of My Toddler’s or Preschooler’s Naptime and Bedtime Routines; How Do I Change That?

If TV is a regular part of your toddler’s or preschooler’s naptime and/or bedtime routine, it may be time for you to re-think that. Remember, TV (in moderation) isn’t bad, but TV right before naps or bed makes it more difficult for your little one to fall asleep.

But removing TV from the pre-nap or pre-bed routine can be easier said than done. Toddlers and preschoolers are creatures of habit; make big, sweeping changes, and they tend to get upset! With that in mind, here are some approaches you can take to gradually remove TV-watching from your child’s naptime and bedtime routines:

  • Start by reducing the amount of TV your little one watches before bed.

    Gradually reducing the time spent watching TV may make it easier to transition away from TV than simply stopping cold-turkey.

  • Gradually move TV time so that it doesn’t happen too close to naps and bed.

    Adjust your toddler’s or preschooler’s TV watching so that you leave the hour before naps and bed free for other activities.

  • Introduce other activities into your child’s naptime and bedtime routines.

    Don’t simply eliminate TV from your little one’s routine; replace it with something else that your child enjoys. Make story time a new part of your naptime and bedtime routines. Or try coloring time, or puzzle time, or play dough time — in short, fill that space in the routine with a calming, relaxing activity that your child will enjoy. Not only with this help your toddler or preschooler transition away from watching TV, it will also help him to slowly wind down before it’s time to sleep.

  • Make it a family affair.

    Sometimes, taking steps to help our children become healthier requires that we parents take a hard look at our own lifestyles, doesn’t it? With that in mind, evaluate your whole family’s TV habits. Do the older members of your family watch TV late into the night? Do you and your partner fall asleep watching TV? If so, consider making a family-wide commitment to eliminating TV from everyone’s bedtime routine.

  • If your child has a TV in her room, consider removing it.

    You don’t have to do this, of course. But it may be easier to eliminate TV from your toddler’s or preschooler’s naptime and bedtime routines if the TV is out of sight altogether. If you do leave a TV in your little one’s room, set very firm boundaries about when it can be on, and when it needs to be off. Emphasize that the TV shouldn’t be on when it’s time to settle in and go to sleep.

  • Deal with any sleep issues your toddler or preschooler may have.

    Many families use TV as a band-aid fix for their toddlers’ or preschooler’s deep-seated sleep problems. If your toddler refuses to nap or has a hard time sleeping through the night, avoid using TV as a solution (because it’s not — it only causes bigger problems.) Instead, work through your toddler’s sleep issues. Teach your little one positive, healthy sleeping habits. It may be challenging, but in the end, when you have a well-rested child, it’ll be worth it!

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What are your thoughts on using TV as part of a toddler’s naptime and bedtime routine? Share your opinions with the rest of us — we’d love to hear them!

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12 thoughts on “How TV Affects Your Toddler or Preschooler’s Sleep”

  1. I agree, Emily. I struggled with guilt for several months. We were getting ready to move and I was trying to work extra hours (from home) and so I told myself it was only temporary, but I felt awful about it. Looking back, now that it’s a routine that has stuck around and I feel I’ve successfully got a handle on setting limits with it (I was afraid I’d slip down the slope!) I realize that the error is when it is used in excess or *shudder* in kids rooms, or when parents use it to “put the child to sleep.”

    • @ Kendra — I work from home too, and I’ve fallen into just what you describe; I’ve been using TV as a stop-gap when my workload has gotten particularly heavy. I’m hoping to correct that this summer; it’s high time my younger two kids spent less time in front of the TV and more time outside! 🙂

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