Screen time and outdoor playtime affect sleep patterns

April 1, 2016

A new study confirms that less screen time and more outdoor playtime are associated with better sleep in young children.

A new study confirms that less screen time and more outdoor playtime are associated with better sleep in young children. The investigation conducted in Australia relied on questionnaires and face-to-face interviews with mothers when their children were aged 2, 3.5, and 5 years, and involved 497, 415, and 369 participants at each of those age groups, respectively.

Analysis of parental reports showed that as children grew older they slept longer, went to bed earlier, took longer to fall asleep, and were less likely to wake at night. Over time, they also spent more time in outdoor play and in front of a screen. In addition, as would be expected, the percentage of children having at least 1 daytime nap greatly decreased with increasing age.

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Significantly, each additional hour of screen time was associated with a 3-minute shorter sleep, a 1.6-minute longer delay in falling asleep, a 4-minute later bedtime, and less likelihood of sleeping 10 or more hours a night. Overall, outdoor playtime was not associated with how many hours the children slept, what time they went to bed, how long it took to fall asleep, or how often they woke during the night, although active children were less likely to wake at night than their more sedentary peers. Only at age 3.5 years was each 1-hour increase in outdoor playtime associated with 5 minutes longer sleep duration and a 6-minute earlier bedtime (Xu H, et al. Acta Paediatr. 2016;105[3]:297-303).

Commentary: We are still learning how active play and screen time relate to sleep and to weight gain. This study suggests that screen time may disrupt sleep but shows little sleep advantage to outdoor play. Nonetheless, I suspect that evidence will emerge to support my mother’s directions to me and my siblings a generation ago: “Get away from the TV and go outside and play.” -Michael G Burke, MD

Ms Freedman is a freelance medical editor and writer in New Jersey. Dr Burke, section editor for Journal Club, is chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Saint Agnes Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland. The editors have nothing to disclose in regard to affiliations with or financial interests in any organizations that may have an interest in any part of this article.