Kids, sleep schedules, and work

2552416553_9a3ea616ab_zPart of parenting is learning about your own kids — and part is realizing what’s universal, and what’s more specific to individual families and children.

I was thinking of this when someone recently posed a scenario about how a mother could combine a reasonable number of work hours with parenting. The woman in question (the story was secondhand) was distraught because she saw her baby for just 10 minutes a day when she got home.

Leaving aside other questions I would ask if I got to speak with this person (let’s keep a time log and see — is it every day Mon-Sun, or just Mon-Thurs? Or is it 10 minutes on particularly bad days, and those are the ones you’re telling people about? And do you see your child in the morning at all? Sometimes kids who go to bed early…wake up early) I thought back to six years ago when I was first combining my work schedule with the care of my own particular baby.

Let’s just say that I didn’t share this woman’s problem. There was no number of hours I could have worked that would have meant not seeing my kid. My oldest son has always had low sleep needs. Even now, he can happily read or write stories until 10:00 or later (he has to be in his room at 9 p.m.). He will then often wake up on his own before 7, and come downstairs to watch TV. He’s not sleep deprived at this almost adult level of sleep. He doesn’t fall asleep as soon as we get in the car, for instance. He just doesn’t need much sleep.

Back in the day, we tried getting him to go into his crib at semi-normal baby times like the books said. We tried for a while. It didn’t work — at least in the sense that he didn’t go to sleep. He just wasn’t tired at 7:30 or 8 o’clock, particularly if he’d had any sort of nap. He’d play and talk and sing in his crib for hours. He gave up the nap early, too. He went to daycare, and they were strict about nap time, but pretty quickly the notes home changed from “napped” to “rested quietly.” So eventually I made my peace with 9:00 being an enforceable bedtime. The upside is that I got to see him plenty. The downside was that this made for some really long evenings. 

So this is the background for my thought process when I first heard stories of people only seeing their kids for a few minutes, racing in for bedtime. I’d think — really? If I’d had an intense day, sometimes I’d fantasize about my kid falling asleep 10 minutes after I finished work. The idea that a child might just fall asleep by 7 or 7:30 without a huge fight or some sort of Harry Potter-esque spell seemed unreal. If you’re only seeing your kid for 10 minutes…put your kid to bed later.

I did wind up “sleep training” my third child. She was much more amenable to it, seeming to enjoy sleep much more. Any crying it out lasted a few minutes. Most nights she’d just let me walk out of the room. Plus, she’s my third kid. I’m tired. Getting her to bed at 7:30 means I can hang out with my older two kids and relax a bit.

But here’s the thing — I recognize that this 7:30 bedtime is as much about me as about her. She doesn’t have to go to sleep at 7:30. The other night my husband took the three kids out to an evening event and they got home past 8:30. She was fine. She slept in a few minutes later in the morning, just as an adult would. Sleep has never beget sleep in my house. I trained her for 7:30. If I was working until 7:00, instead of 5 or 5:30, I would have trained her for later, and she would have made it up in the morning or at nap, arriving at her magic number much as my son arrived at his (much lower) number.

It’s been interesting to get different experiences with different kids. It makes me see how much temperament plays into things, vs. any “parenting philosophy” I might have. I am also reminded, again, that we all experience life according to different norms. When I posted on a parenting list three years ago, asking about how to move my then 2-year-old and baby into a room together, people responded that the 2-year-old would sleep through any baby wake-ups. They were right. I posted a follow-up on the list that both kids had been asleep from 11:30-7 that first night. People sent me sympathetic emails saying they were hoping things would get better soon. I thought that was funny, since I’d considered that a victory.

Then again, other people’s kids went to bed at 7:30.

There are lots of ways one can structure work to see children who go to bed at 7 or 7:30. But another thing I might say to people complaining about this is, well, you’ve kind of won the sleep lottery. You could be grateful for that. Would you prefer your baby be extremely energetic, not need much sleep, and stay up until 9 or 10 p.m., so you’ve got 3 hours of intense parenting waiting for you after a 10-11 hour day at work?

In other news: Speaking of putting children to bed, we were reading the end of Peter Pan the other night. When Wendy grows up, she has a daughter named Jane. According to the book, Jane’s nurse puts her to bed most nights, but she’s off one evening a week, and then Wendy does it. This is simply presented as fact, with Wendy telling Peter Pan stories those nights, not in the context of “Wow, isn’t Wendy a crappy mom?” And yet I’m hearing numerous stories these days of women in extremely high-earning jobs — the sort that afford their families all kinds of opportunities — beating themselves up because they’re not there for bedtime every single night. Wendy did 1 of 7! Standards apparently change.

Photo courtesy flickr user ryanrocketship

16 thoughts on “Kids, sleep schedules, and work

  1. Bedtime is 8:45ish here. It was later when my oldest was still forced to nap (or at least rest quietly) at day care. Right now, it generally takes the younger one (who is 3.5 and still has to nap at day care) until about 9:20 p.m. to fall asleep. The older one (who is 6) falls asleep right away most nights. They both wake up between 6 and 6:45 most days, and show no signs of sleep deprivation.
    Back when the older one was a baby and still napping a couple of times during the day, my days started at 5 a.m. Bedtime was at about 8, but could take ages. As she started to grow out of the need for a nap, wake up time moved to about 6, but it would sometimes be almost 10 before she’d fall asleep.
    I have friends whose kids sleep from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. without fail, and also nap. (Neither of our kids naps on the weekends anymore.) I used to be jealous of them, but then I saw the bright side of our way. As you say, there is never any chance that I won’t see my kids, even if I have to stay late at work. Having low sleep needs kids also makes travel easier- we don’t have to worry so much about the meltdowns due to being tired. We can go to Disneyland and stay all day. We can go out to dinner and not worry too much if we don’t get back to the hotel until almost 10. On our recent trip to New Zealand, we went to the hot pools in Taupo at night (something my husband told me was a bit of a Kiwi tradition) and the kids had no problem at all with it.
    I do occasionally feel sorry for myself when I have work to do or a project I want to work on at night and I can’t get done with bedtimes until 9:30- my own bedtime should be 10! (The low sleep needs comes from my husband, not me.) But on the whole, I wouldn’t trade, particularly not now that my kids are getting old enough to play on their own after dinner and let me work, as long as I’m in the same room as they are.

    1. @Cloud – we have appreciated the flexibility that comes from lower sleep needs, too. We could do all day things without having to come home for a nap. We generally don’t have evening meltdowns from tiredness. One friend’s 6-year-old still naps. She’s almost embarrassed by it, but hey — kids are all different.

    2. there is something to be said fore greek or spanish/latin culture that just drags the kids out at night to whatever the parents are doing — for me this is better and teaches them to socialize but I’m an extrovert so I wanted them party friendly early. my husband who is an introvert and the latino actually sometimes is horrified if we stay late at a neighborhood party .. but in the end we are all happy — introvert leaves early, often gets a movie or book in while kids party with me later ; )

  2. With my first, our worst stretch was when she had a forced nap at daycare at then didn’t sleep until around 10:00 at night. She was constantly sleep deprived AND I wasn’t getting anything done. As soon as she stopped napping she also slept reliably from 6:30-6:30 am. I had evenings back but not a lot of time with her. And no, I couldn’t “train” her to go to bed later and sleep later; she had a preset wake up time, regardless of when she went to bed, as many kids do.

    1. @gwinne- it varies by kid. We tend to have set quantities of sleep, rather than set wake up times. So staying up late on weekends is a good way to get some extra sleep on weekday mornings. When we went to Seattle recently, I was worried about the time change, but we’d gone to bed on the later side, and the kids didn’t get up at 4 a.m. (7 a.m. east coast time). It was closer to 6. Whether my baby takes a nap is entirely dependent on how much sleep she got the night before — just as it tends to be for me!

        1. That variation was my point; in some ways, you got lucky!

          Now that my daughter is older she’s more likely to sleep “in,” if she’s been up too late, but not really possible on school days.

          So mostly we’re a high-sleep-needs family that also tends toward insomnia. Not a good combo!

          1. @gwinne- oh yeah, if kids have insomnia it’s the worst. Then it’s your problem too 🙁

  3. Yes to all of it.

    (My firstborn sounds a lot like yours: low sleep needs, which at this stage I still consider unfortunate. (He’s 10 now, and my sleep/wake schedule is too close to his for my liking!)

  4. I know a lot of people who put their kid to sleep by 7-7:30pm. This means many parents (men and women) only get a few minutes with their kids if they get home later. I also do know some people who regularly get home around 6:30-7:30 due to traffic or company culture. My solution has been a later bedtime and earlier work hours for me. When I had an hour commute, I wouldn’t see my kids in the morning (or only the early riser). However, I would usually get home by 5:30 and put the kids to bed by 7:30 or even 8:30. We still had time to ourselves since I went to bed by 10-10:30. Flexibility was key. Sometimes if the adults or kids were super tired, we would put the kids to bed earlier.

  5. My 7-month-old seems to have low sleep needs, and he WILL NOT sleep unless he’s tired. Most of our friends have done some kind of sleep training, but we’ve just gone with the flow. He goes to sleep when we do, he wakes about an hour after we do and takes a few naps during the day depending on how tired he is. He’s still in the tiny kids’ class at daycare where they don’t try to schedule naps at all. So, like you, on the one hand I love having plenty of time at home with him in the evenings. On the other hand, sometimes I wish he’d go to sleep at 7pm so I’d have some guaranteed free time in the evening. Same with naps. I don’t have to plan my day around his nap schedule, but I never have guaranteed nap time to get things done.

    1. @Chelsea – if you think about it, it’s kind of funny that we would expect anyone to sleep if he/she isn’t tired. I’ve recently had the revelation that I don’t actually need 8 hours of sleep. I got it a few days in a row (making up a slight deficit from the prior week) and then the next few nights kind of just laid there for an hour each time. I wasn’t tired in the morning. I should probably build my schedule around sleeping 7.25-7.5 hours/night.

  6. I do think that a working parent who feels like they aren’t seeing their kids should just push the bedtime later. Mine have no bedtime and they are happy and I am happy seeing them from 6 to 10. It is probably better for your marriage to do sleep training if you want to have that alone time with your spouse from 8 to 10, but many american couples spend that zoned out next to each other in front of tv which has little reward, especially for women who are less likely to bond say shoulder to shoulder than even a guy who studies show do better say bonding next to someone not right in front of them b/c of how we probably evolved. A lot could be said about how working parents feel about mandatory naps etc. or the kid who passes out at 6 p.m. on the way home from daycare etc —

  7. We’re definitely “those people”, at least with our first, and the second is trending that way though definitely more challenging.

    Here’s the thing – it’s not just as easy as “put your kid to bed later”. Ours wake up EARLIER the later they go to bed and it’s been true since they were tiny. We’ve had a few wretched nights where we couldn’t get the baby to sleep until 10:30pm, and then she wakes at 4:30am, ready to start her day, and of course is a crying mess a few hours later, and can’t seem to catch up, even during naps.

    So it definitely varies. We have high sleep needs, and highly-routine oriented, I guess. So if we don’t mess with “the schedule” they sleep roughly 7:00pm till about 6:30am, and both still nap at least 90 minutes.

    Of course we do mess with the schedule, very rarely, but we always pay for it the next couple of days. So we have to decide whether it’s really “worth it”.

    The upside is that we have a TON of time at night to get stuff done, hang out with each other, etc. So in theory I could spend some of that time on work if I were so inclined.

    We probably won’t attempt Disneyland for a while 😉

  8. It never occurred to me that our oldest’s sleeping schedule was unusual until I started on the mommy forums. None of the baby books fit my oldest in any other respect, and none of them backed up their statements with research, so I figured they were all just wrong. And with the forums I never understood why so many moms were obsessed with sleep schedules. Still don’t. Well, except that they’re good for the mom to get predictable and uninterrupted time to talk on the mommy forums. Which would be more understandable if the same mommies weren’t always the ones complaining about WOHM sending their children to “baby farms”. (Or perhaps saying that working women who hire night nurses shouldn’t have had children in the first place. Also ironic that sleep scheduling is somehow more sacred than breast-feeding. Glass houses.)
    Also the “sleep begets sleep” mantra is stupid. Sometimes kids need more sleep and it’s easier to get them to bed and they sleep longer. Sometimes kids need less sleep, so it’s harder to force them to nap or to go to bed earlier. So it seems like when they go to bed earlier they sleep in later, but really it’s just a growth spurt or developmental change or a really exciting day that needs processing. Correlation is not causation.
    It’s pretty obvious when a kid is grumpy from being sleepy, and we’ve always tried to listen to the kid’s needs in terms of routines rather than forcing a strict sleep schedule. That has avoided a lot of unnecessary fighting.
    Thankfully having an early reader allowed us to institute nightly quiet time for our oldest once he turned 3 or so. Can’t wait until DC2 starts reading.

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