A popular topic in this newsletter is “bad studies that animate the media.” Sometimes I feel like if this was your main consumption of research, you’d conclude that all studies are bad, and also that the media likes alarmist headlines. The second is true; the first is not. Many research papers are not bad. Perhaps more important to note, much of what is produced by academic journals — even on topics the general public might be interested in — never gets surfaced in the media at all.
One of my favorite things to do is peruse relevant journals and see what they are up to that I’m not hearing about in the New York Times or in the scary headlines you send me on Instagram DMs. Today I’m going to surface the results of one of those perusals. I spent a few hours in JAMA Pediatrics, a top pediatrics journal (impact factor: 26.8). Here’s one of the interesting studies I found, plus a bit of speculation at the end about why it didn’t pop up in your news feed.
Early bedtime is good
The first paper that caught my eye was titled “Nonpharmacological Interventions to Lengthen Sleep Duration in Healthy Children.”
This paper is a review and meta-analysis of randomized interventions with the goal of increasing sleep in kids. As I’ve talked about before, sleep is incredibly important for kids’ development, and many kids do not get enough of it. But increasing sleep for kids can be challenging; kids fight sleep, and it’s sometimes hard to know how to go about doing this.
The review paper covers 45 studies that tried different interventions (mostly in-home with families) to increase children’s sleep. It is a formal meta-analysis, which means the authors searched for papers on this question and then used a standard procedure to combine the numbers to draw overall conclusion, even though the individual trials themselves didn’t all do exactly the same thing.
Trials were included in the study if they used any intervention that might affect sleep, even if it was part of a slightly different goal. For example: some of the interventions in these studies were focused on combating obesity, and better sleep habits are often part of that. Most interventions used some form of talking to families about how to improve sleep, and possibly making specific suggestions.
Here are the headline results. Overall, on average, these interventions increased sleep by 10 minutes. This is significant, but it’s also fairly small. However, the interventions that focused on an earlier bedtime increased sleep by 47 minutes — this effect is significant and much larger than the interventions that did other things.
The individual study with the largest effect here is relevant to those of us with slightly older kids. This 2017 paper intervened with high school students who got an average of five to seven hours of sleep a night. The intervention group was told to go to bed 1.5 hours earlier than they typically would. They ended up getting 72 minutes more sleep and “had reduced symptoms of sleepiness, anger, [low] vigor, fatigue, and confusion.”
Overall: we know sleep matters. This paper reaffirms that, and points to earlier bedtime as a key (for older kids, too).
Why wasn’t it covered?
I found this article interesting and actionable for parents. But not scary, sexy, or exciting. While helpful to parents it does not necessarily lend itself to clickable headlines.
The lesson here, other than to have an early bedtime, is probably one of awareness. Studies we see in the media are selected for something, and it isn’t always for being the most thoughtful or useful.