Podcast: Kid sleep with Stacey Simon

Best of Both World podcast with Laura Vanderkam

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!


12 thoughts on “Podcast: Kid sleep with Stacey Simon

  1. How is your little guy sleeping these days? Children who are great sleepers naturally are really such a gift! (Not all of mine are either, so I say this with no negative judgement 🙂 )

  2. Oh I could go on (rant?) about my family’s sleep! Maybe we’ll turn the corner this year. Current status:
    The baby, 8mo: wakes up 1-2x/night to eat (breastfed when I’m there, formula when I’m not). Falls asleep nursing fairly often (working on that). Lately we’ve been having trouble getting her back in her crib 4a-5:30a (wakes up crying as soon as you try to put her down). As snuggly as she is to sleep with in my arms, I don’t sleep well that way, and the sleep deprivation + logistical challenges of putting down/handing her off means I’ve been missing much-needed early morning runs.
    The 3-year old: has never found it easy to fall asleep. Currently mostly wants to sleep with Dad (who is there every night; I am not). Wakes up screaming for him 3-6x/week, sometimes multiple times a night. I’ve tried; ball is in his court now.
    Hubby: bit of an early-morning (3a) insomniac anyway, worse with both kids waking up at least once a night. Probably needs 8-9 hours a night, maybe less if he could sleep in early AM. Good about going to bed early. Still sleep deprived and complains loudly about it.
    Me: could sleep like the dead at night. I’m an Emergeny Physician though and into the late evening (11p/midnight), or early (2-3a) or late (off at 7a) overnight – probably 2 of those a week. 1-3x/week that late night is followed immediately by an early morning (7a) work thing. (Usually a few hours of meetings that only happen at that time. Not possible to reschedule.) Good news is I do have childcare when I get off at 2 or later and could sleep. But between the baby nursing, the non-elective construction project going on at my house, and my inability to ever sleep past 2pm, I’m toast most of the time. Interrupted sleep just isn’t the same as a nice long stretch, no matter how much.
    It’s a phase. This too shall pass. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

    1. oops – a sentence doesn’t make sense – as an Emergency Physician I WORK into the late evening/early morning/overnight) (blahblahblah).

  3. I wanted to like this episode and was hoping for some different tips for young children (age 3-7), not just infants or adolescents. I was hoping tips from a sleep psychologist would share some new light. Things like the sound machine, eat wake sleep, swaddle, routine, schedules, winding down with no screens, etc are not that new to parenting tips and books. What about a child who screams in the night? One who screams and cries going to bed with or without a parent helping? Just sharing my thoughts!

  4. Helpful sleep tips for kids to get a good night sleep. Maintain a daily routine is a very essential point for a comfortable sleep to kids and others. Thank you very much.

  5. Here’s another point to add into the mix: Some children have sleep disorders, and my sense (as a mom of 2 who have *different* sleep disorders) is that they are under-recognized. Babies normally have unconsolidated sleep, so parents and pediatricians generally assume that bad sleep is normal. And to some degree it is, but there are red flags to look out for to consider whether bad sleep is the garden-variety kind or the sleep-disorder kind. None of our pediatricians explored such red flags with me until I concluded myself (after 2.5 years) that my first child’s sleep couldn’t possibly be normal, and I insisted on a sleep study. I wish I could have had guidance from our pediatrician earlier.
    I have no doubt that Dr. Simon helps many people. But I worry about embarking on behavioral methods with an exceptionally bad sleeper without stopping to consider first whether a medical condition might be present. I saw a friend go through this with her child, spinning her wheels working with a sleep psychologist until eventually finding out that her child’s iron stores were low (which causes restless sleep).
    Sharing this as a PSA for other parents…

  6. This episode made me realize how far we’ve come. I am on the high end of sleep needs (generally like 9+ hours, can get by with 8.5 once I’ve been sleeping well for a while) and even with a relatively good sleeper of a baby, it was rough. I used to vividly fantasize about checking into a hotel by myself just to sleep, for both of my girls’ first 2 years or so.

    But now they are 6 and 9 and the only sleep issues are my own if I stay up too late staring at my phone or reading 🙂

    My kids are on the higher end of sleep needs as well – the 6yo sleeps for about 11 hours, and the 9yo likes about 11.5 (!) and I’ve noticed that we’ve had to decline a LOT of events and activities due to the fact that they go to bed by 7:15pm and they need to get up for school at 6:15am.

    My 6yo is not yet able to “make up” sleep if we stay out late – if we keep her up until even 8:30pm, she’ll wake up at 5am and have horrible behavior the next day until she gets a nap. So we miss out on a lot of fun stuff still – evening movies, school events that start at 6pm, etc. The older one has been to a few late night concerts or dinners with me and does much better, but only if the next day is not a school day. I feel like a weirdo for declining all this fun stuff (and get a lot of side-eye about it) but the fallout is so not worth it. Hoping this will improve over the next few years 🙂

    Would have loved to hear more about elementary-age kids and how to balance activities/schedules with enough sleep.

    1. @ARC – It sounds like we are on the opposite ends of the spectrum with our kids. I was desperately hoping for more evening activities when the kids were little to fill the time until bedtime! Probably in the next few years your kids’ needs will drift down closer to yours – very little happens of note after 9 p.m. during the week so if you can get to that point (and up at 6:15) you won’t have to decline stuff. Until then…there will be stuff in the future 😉

  7. Hi Laura and Sarah,
    This is more about the listener question you had on this podcast about if the listener should change jobs or not. I read a book called ‘Fit Matters: How to love your job’ by Cammie Dunaway and Moe Carrick. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but it really helped me identify if my current job was ok enough to stay or to move on. I’ve decided to move on but only for the right job. I thought this might help.
    Sending love from Australia (BTW – neither my 6 yr old or my 8 yr old reliably sleep through the night – but, whatever!)

  8. Hello! Thanks for your podcast – been listening since the beginning! I recall that Dr. Simon referred to some sleep resources/websites and that links to these were going to be provided. Where can I find these website links/resources? Thanks! From a family doctor who wants to provide good support to patients/families.

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