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Once upon a time, there was a thing called the Toddlers’ Truce. This early piece of British television scheduling policy required transmissions to terminate between 6pm and 7pm each weekday —between the end of children’s broadcasting and the start of the evening schedule—so that young children could be put to bed. What could be further from the situation today, when children’s channels broadcast 24 hours a day?

 

The Toddlers’ Truce seems to have originated when the BBC resumed television broadcasts in 1946. It remained fairly uncontroversial until 1956, when the newly opened commercial franchises were struggling to stay in business. They claimed the truce caused them a loss of revenue during the hour they were forced to closedown.

 

Luckily for them, the Postmaster General Charles Hill disliked the policy: “This restriction seemed to me absurd and I said so. It was the responsibility of parents, not the state, to put their children to bed at the right time”. And so, the Toddlers’ Truce came to an end on Saturday, 16 February 1957.

 

For older children, TV affected their sleep schedule in another way. The 9pm watershed – primarily intended to protect children from viewing unsuitable material – supplied generations of children with a cue for going to bed. Family viewing was now over and adult programmes about to begin. In those days, no child in their right mind wanted to watch earnest documentaries or current affairs programmes, let alone the 9 o’clock news!

 

With today’s constant stream of 24-hour entertainment, it’s easy to see why parents find it so hard to get their children to switch off, relax and go to sleep. Maybe Charles Hill was right, and the Toddlers’ Truce and 9 o’clock watershed were a bit paternalistic. But I have no doubt that children were better sleepers because of them.

Dr. Neil Stanley

Dr Neil Stanley is an independent sleep expert who has been involved in research for over 35 years. After starting out at the R.A.F. Institute of Aviation Medicine, he moved on to the University of Surrey's Human Psychopharmacology Research Unit, where he was Director of Sleep Research. Today, he travels the world lecturing on various aspects of sleep to both healthcare professionals and the public at large.