If your kids don’t sleep well, life can be tough. Alas, for all the theories and social media posts out there, some of this is sheer kid temperament — and the luck of the draw.
Among my four children, #1 and #4 were (and are) far less attached to sleep than #2 and #3. Indeed, when #1 was a baby, I marveled at stories of people feeling it was challenging to combine full-time work with parenthood, because the baby goes to bed at 6:30 p.m. so when do you see him? Well in my case, from 6:30-9:30 p.m. He had zero interest in a 6:30 bedtime. We could train him to get in bed earlier, and play quietly, but then he would lie there for hours. He wasn’t clingy. He wasn’t scared of the dark. He wasn’t unable to go to sleep by himself. He just wasn’t tired.
So I kind of figured what would be the point of forcing an early bedtime, and depriving my husband of the chance to see the kid, just because babies are “supposed” to behave a certain way.
As you might guess from that last sentence, sleep can be a surprisingly controversial topic. So Sarah and I were happy to welcome Stacey Simon, a sleep psychologist and researcher, to the Best of Both Worlds podcast to talk about the issue. A few highlights:
Sleep is a skill. Yes, everyone has to sleep, and it’s a natural biological process. But it’s more like potty training (or eating a variety of healthy foods) than breathing. Within the range of their own sleep needs, kids can learn skills to help them fall asleep and stay asleep, or go back to sleep if they wake up.
Routines are good. They’re good for people of all ages! Adults might think about having a tech curfew and a bedtime alongside their children. Brush teeth, a story, a snuggle, lights out — this can be adapted for anyone.
Kid sleep needs vary. Simon noted that elementary school-aged children generally need 9-11 hours of sleep per day. But if you think about this, if a kid wakes up at 7:30 a.m., that means he could be falling asleep at 10:30 p.m. and be perfectly fine. Normal! An 8 p.m. bedtime is by no means a requirement. (Of course I don’t fault parents who really need some adult time by that point…) It really just depends on the kid.
Teen sleep needs are often in the 8-10 hour range. For older kids who have more autonomy over their time, parents can be most helpful by making sure that there is enough time available to sleep. So a teen who needs to be up at 6:30 a.m. might need a reminder a bit before 10 p.m. to get the homework (or screens) put away and start winding down.
Social jet-lag is real. Simon is a realist, which I appreciate. According to theories of good “sleep hygiene” people really need to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This is also unlikely in real life. Your teens are not going to wake up at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday. But there’s a big space between waking up at 6:30 a.m. and sleeping until 2 p.m. If you protect enough time to sleep during the week, then the weekend catch up impulse isn’t quite as strong, and the kids can get moving within a reasonable range of their normal wake up time.
Sleep training is not what you think it is. A lot of people hear this and think “cry it out.” But again, there is a big range between refusing to leave a kid (ever) and letting her scream for 2 hours. It might happen in stages. Instead of rocking the baby to sleep, you rub her back (so she’s in the crib and not your arms). Instead of leaving the room entirely, you sit in the chair, or in the door. Then you move to sitting in the hall…
Anyway, please give the episode a listen. And let us know how your kids are sleeping these days!