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

  1. @ Kendra — so glad you found the post helpful! I didn’t do any TV with my oldest son until he was about over 12 months old (similar to you), and when I finally did let him watch a little bit of Sesame Street, I remember feeling guilty!

    Different story, now that I have 3 kids; I still work to limit TV, but I’ll say that my younger 2 kids were exposed to TV at a much earlier age. But since we watch PBS kids pretty exclusively, I feel (mostly) okay about that. 😉

    Thanks for passing this post along to friends you think might benefit from it! This is a pertinent topic, I think, especially considering how many moms and dads actually put TVs in their little ones’ rooms.

    Thanks, too, for commenting, Kendra! 🙂

  2. I felt the same as Nicole – I was going to avoid all TV if at all possible! Now that my son is almost 2, he has a little TV time on our “at home” days, which usually adds up to only about 3 hours a week (I log it just like I log sleep). I’m also careful about what type of shows he watches – avoiding things with fast scene changes or too much stimulation. Usually Barney or Mr. Rogers. And like another poster said, he usually only watches for a few minutes, then goes and plays, then returns, etc. It’s just a time when I can work and it adds some variety in his day. But, mind you, I was completely against it for the first year of his life. And he has certainly learned a lot from the shows (not that I’m justifying not teaching him those things myself, but that I can see he has benefitted).

    I did learn from this post, though! I currently let him watch at 10am and then we have a snack and he usually takes his nap at about 11 or 11:30. So I’ll work on either moving the TV time earlier or push it til after his nap. Great info! Sharing with my friends!

  3. @ kleo — what an inspiring story! So glad to hear that turning off the TV has produced such good things for your daughter. I’ve had similar experiences; I’ve found that when my kids watch too much TV, they’re just awful (cranky, fidgety, lazy, etc.) But when I turn it off and force them to find something else to do, they’re like different kids!

    Thanks for sharing these details, kleo, and for inspiring the rest of us to turn off the TV a little more often! 😉

    @ Fiona — wow! No TV — you go, mama! Good for you! We’ve done “TV fasts” in my house, where we won’t watch TV for a few days, or for a week. And, like you, I love the results it produces in my kids. 🙂

    Thanks for telling us about your experience, Fiona!

  4. @ Lindsay — thanks for sharing these details! Sounds like you’ve got a nice balance going here, which is a good thing! 🙂 And yes — I too enjoy my kids when they’re rested. They’re sooo much happier and nicer to be around!

    Thanks for commenting, Lindsay!

    @ Alayna — agreed, about how much easier it is to be able to reason with your little one! Now that my two boys are older (6 and 4), my husband and I have been able to use TV to our advantage. Watching a movie is a special treat, and “no TV” has become THE most dreaded consequence at our house!

    Thanks for commenting, Alayna 🙂

  5. Since we moved house and country a couple of years ago we have pretty much dropped tv from kids routines. Accidentally at first as in our rented house there was no tv. Now in our permanent home my kids (6&4) only see tv once a week on a sat or sun night for an hour (or two max if they are watching movie).
    Because of this I think they are much better with their imagination and love music and books even more. So we love no tv and find we don’t need it. I now hate them going to their cousins whose mums rely on tv a lot! I never thought it possible – but kids don’t need tv. Glad to read your study – for a change I’m doing something right as a mum!! Yippee

  6. This blog has come at a good time for us. Just last week we decided to cut down on TV for my 14 month old. She never really just sat in front of it and watched it for long periods of time – 5 minutes maybe, but then she would get up and play with her toys, but it’s always on in the background.

    Since I have turned the TV off and put music on instead, she has become so much more focused. She will actually concentrate on one toy for longer than she used to and is happy to sit on my lap and have me read to her (Previously she would just want to crawl away or throw the book away or flip through the pages too quickly).

    Since then she has also said her first word – Mumum (much to my joy and delight – I nearly cried) and is now working on saying Dadad. She’s close, but not quite there.

    So we actually have a different baby. We haven’t had sleep issues since she was much younger (and some help from a personalised sleep plan from Nicole changed our worlds! – Thanks Nicole!) so TV hasn’t been a problem at bed time or nap times, but this article has given me an extra reason to be strong with my no TV (even if it means me being a little bored during the day).

  7. I have been so sick with my second pregnancy that I am sorry to say that my toddler is watching way too much tv. The way we limit it before nap/bedtime is telling him he can watch something (his favorite is bubble guppies) after his nap. He hurries to his bed when we say that. It’s so nice when they get old enough to reason with!

  8. My toddler typically watches 7-12 hours of TV a week. She sometimes will go a couple days without watching it, but some days I need her to watch a movie while I take care of something she can’t be involved in. When I need to take inventory or clean the studio, those couple hours of distraction can make all the difference. It’s definitely not a daily habit. Some nights dad let’s her play on the iPad before bed and she chooses to watch PBS kids most of the time. I’m not fully comfortable with that, but we’re not parenting together, so I have no control over what he does with her. When she’s with me we read books and cuddle and sing for about an hour before bedtime. I like her behavior much better when she’s had enough sleep.

  9. @ Steven — nice point! Thanks for sharing this detail about what worked for you. 🙂

  10. When we first started sleep training watching a Goodnight Moon video on YouTube really helped relax our daughter. It was only part of our bedtime routine, but it seemed to really help. Of course that was only around 5 minutes (if we watched it twice). Aside from that we really limit how much tv she watches. So I would agree with this article with the caveat that a few minutes watching something relaxing may be helpful.

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