The Surprising Thing Keeping Your Toddler From Getting Enough Sleep

crying toddler
iStock.com/JBryson

If you're like many parents of toddlers (myself included), you probably resort to handing over your smartphone at least a couple of times a day. Let's face it -- the ubiquitous electronic devices are lifesavers when you're trying to avoid a tantrum in line at the grocery store or just need five minutes of peace to get the dishwasher loaded. But a new study shows this is one parenting shortcut you might need to cut down on: According to researchers, kids who spend time on a mobile device actually end up missing out on precious sleep.

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The study, which analyzed data collected from 715 parents detailing the daily frequency of touchscreen use in kids between the ages of 6 and 36 months, found that approximately 92 percent of toddlers (25 to 36 months) use a mobile device every day. For those kids, every hour they spend on the device results in about 15 minutes of lost sleep -- and it adds up quickly.

"One surprising finding was that despite sleeping more on average during the day, infants and toddlers who spend more time on a touchscreen still spend less overall time sleeping," study coauthor Celeste Cheung was quoted as saying in Real Simple.

Even more troubling, most toddlers aren't ever able to really "catch up" on their lost sleep.

More from CafeMom: 7 Ways to Get Your Toddler to Sleep Better

Researchers aren't sure exactly why this is true, but the study authors do have several theories. All that time spent playing with ABC apps and watching YouTube videos of kids unwrapping surprise eggs might disrupt their schedule and lead to later bedtimes, or it could make them overstimulated to the point where it's difficult for them to nod off.

Or -- and this is the most intriguing theory -- it could be that the bright light from the screens suppresses melatonin, which can affect circadian timing and disrupt kids' sleep cycles. Studies have shown that exposure to artificial light can do the same to adults, so it makes sense ... even if it is a little scary to think that the devices we're surrounding ourselves with 24/7 are actually altering the way our children's brains work -- and ours!

As the mother of a 2½-year-old, I found that this study definitely got me thinking. Handing my iPhone over to my son is never something I feel great about, but it's not something I stress over excessively, either; even on the days when I rely on technology as a parenting crutch the most, I don't think he spends anywhere close to a solid hour on my phone (with the possible exception of a road trip scenario). And if a whole hour only equals a 15-minute sleep loss, that's not such a huge deal, right?

Except, really it kind of is. Research has shown that even a seemingly small amount of sleep loss (30 to 60 minutes per night) can cause kids to have difficulty sitting still and paying attention; another recent study found that kids who got an insufficient amount of sleep in their preschool years had a higher risk of poor neurobehavioral function at around age 7.

More from CafeMom: Moms Get Less Sleep Than Dads & We Finally Have Proof

Clearly, little kids need a lot of sleep -- and monitoring their screen time could be part of making sure they get it. As easy as it is to use a phone as a pacifier, we should at least make sure that they're not using our devices for longer than we realize. (After all, five minutes here, five minutes there ... it adds up fast.) But just think, at the end of the day you might be rewarded with 15 more minutes of a sleeping kid!

One silver lining to this study: Toddlers who use touchscreen devices do appear to develop fine motor skills faster than their tech-free peers. So, screen time isn't all bad, and toddlers can still swipe right at the speed of light -- as long as they're getting enough sleep.

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