Over a decade ago, I was at a reunion with some of my college roommates. I had four kids at the time, and one on the way. My oldest was about eight years old and in third grade. Most of my roommates had kids that were around elementary school age as well. After a couple of days at the reunion, one roommate showed up with his family. He was very lax about bedtimes for his kids. Translation: he never sent them to bed.
His kids would just wander around the house late into the night. And it was not pleasant. Those kids were pouting, moping, whining, unenthusiastic, were having difficulty getting along with the other kids, and they did not look well, either. My roommate was doing his poor kids a disservice by letting them stay up so late. We joked that his kids were like zombie children. They just groaned and plodded around the room like the undead.
It made the reunion really frustrating. With zombie kids milling about, we (the adults) could not relax, we did not have privacy from the kids, and we could not engage in adult conversation. It was kind of ruining the trip. All because a couple of kids simply didn’t go to bed.
In my head I was screaming, “Put your darn kids to bed!”
I remember hinting at my roommate that it would be a good time to send the kids to bed, but he did not get the hint. Another roommate also mentioned it to him, but he did not seem to realize his kids were annoying all the adults in the cabin. Apparently late bedtimes were the norm in his household. In my head I was screaming, “Put your darn kids to bed!”
And here’s the thing: my roommate is a great guy. I love him to death. I bet his kids are great kids. But they were so extremely tired, they were very difficult to be around.
Even though my wife and I had a lot of little kids, I remember thinking, “How does this guy do it? And his poor wife. She must have the patience of Job. I would lose my mind if my kids were this tired all the time and acted like this. I would go insane.” Seriously, I do not have that kind of patience.
Or, maybe that mom was working up her tolerance for pain. She was training to be a spy for a government agency and needed to practice being tortured. I do not know.
I would gladly take twelve well-rested children any day over two or three chronically exhausted children. Believe it or not, the second scenario is actually harder. It would be harder to deal with chronically tired children than to deal with a large group of well-rested children.
That made me realize that too many parents are making parenting 100 times harder by simply not implementing a bedtime.
When Should You Implement A Bedtime?
When we had our first baby, we let the baby decide when she was going to sleep. During the first few months of infancy, she slept all the time, like most newborns do.
By six months, however, this very active little baby was no longer sleeping all the time. In fact, she was up until around 11:00 at night. Then she would wake up at 2:00 in the morning to eat, and then by 4:00 or 5:00, she was up for the day. She would bounce on my head or my poor wife’s head, trying to convince us to get up and play with her.
To make matters worse, my wife had the hardest time getting her to take naps. She wouldn’t lay still long enough to fall asleep. She just had too much energy.
Or so we thought.
When my daughter was nine months old, my wife’s aunt saw the sleep difficulties we were having and explained how to correct the problem.
She told us the secret to getting our little baby to sleep through the night, and to sleep better.
Using her advice, we began putting baby Tia down for the night at 7:pm. We thought for sure that the earlier bedtime would mean that Tia would wake up even earlier. But Hannah’s aunt assured us the opposite was true: the baby would sleep soundly until seven the next morning—if we put her to bed by seven at night.
“The baby would sleep soundly until seven the next morning—if we put her to bed by seven at night.”
Hannah’s aunt then told us about the importance of naps. She said that we were to put the baby down for a nap at 9:00 am. Yes, 9:00 am. Even though she had only been awake for two hours and didn’t seem tired. And then another nap from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm.
Even though we were highly skeptical that this would work, we tried it. For the first three nights, the baby cried for 45 minutes when we put her to bed at 7:00 pm. But then, after three days, she accepted the new schedule and went right to sleep. She even reached for the bed!
The results were incredible:
My baby had pink cheeks, she was way happier, she stopped crying and whining all the time, she had a better appetite, and she did not require me or my wife to entertain her constantly. It was much easier caring for her when she was well-rested. That was our first experience seeing the difference sleep could make for our kids.
I will admit, it seemed really mean to put the baby to bed and just let her cry for 45 minutes. But seeing how much happier and healthier she was, any guilt was swept away, and since then I’ve never felt bad about putting a child to bed early.
Now at this point, some people may read this and think, “Duh. Of course you need to put your kids to bed earlier.” But for new parents, or for parents who were never taught about sleep schedules, or for parents who had weird ideas about sleep, this will come as a revelation. Remember my roommate from the reunion? He never got the memo to put your kids to bed. I’m guessing a LOT of parents never got the memo.
My wife had a good friend who had two young babies, but she waited until they were two years old to start putting them to bed early. Yikes! Instead of crying for three nights in a row and then accepting the new bedtime, this poor lady’s kids cried for three weeks. Because my friend waited so long to put her children on a schedule, the adjustment took much longer and was more heart-wrenching for everyone. You’ll want to avoid that scenario if you can!
Another mother we knew was horrified that we would ever subject a child to 45 minutes of crying. She would never do that to her children. No matter what, she would always be there for them. She told us that if her kids cried, she would get out of bed and hold them until they felt safe and secure.
Sadly, this woman’s children were eight and six years old and had never slept through the night. Neither had the mom. She had never had more than two hours of solid sleep. That is simply not healthy. If she had just allowed them to adjust to a new schedule, they all would be getting better sleep.
Toddlers And Naps
So, here’s what we’ve learned. Toddlers around 14 months old transition from two naps a day to just one nap per day. By the time a kid is around five, no more naps. Granted, this is when we put our kids to bed around 7:00 or 8:00. If they stay up late, they may need a nap.
If it is still light out at 7:00 at night, then we have the kids read quietly in bed. They can read until it gets dark. It has to be quiet, though, or the reading privilege gets taken away. No more books. This technique works well. The kids who are tired fall asleep quickly, while those who need less sleep get to read. We just have to make sure what they’re reading isn’t too exciting, or they may end up reading all night.
Kids, Tweens, and Teens
Sleep needs gradually decrease as kids get older. When they’re first born, they pretty much sleep all day, only to wake to eat. Then, they start taking multiple naps per day, then two naps a day, one nap a day, to no naps. They go from 12 hours of sleep, to 10, to 8 or 9, and then junior high hits.
Sleep needs skyrocket back to 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night. Their sleep needs become that of a five-year-old. We discovered this the hard way. Again, with our oldest (who we should have named “Guinea Pig”), she hit puberty and became an instant grouch. Because she was older, we had started to let her stay up a little later. Instead of going to bed at 7:00 or 8:00, we would let her stay up until 9:00. That was a mistake. She was always moody and irritable. It was like someone replaced her with an angry alien.
Then one day it hit me: she is just tired. She is acting like she is tired. We opted to put her to bed earlier, and viola! Back to her happy self again. She just needed more sleep.
Turns out, tweens and teens need a lot of sleep. Why? Because they are growing. They are changing. They are going back to a period of rapid growth. And that is the principle: any time you are going through a period of rapid growth, your sleep needs go way up.
That applies to newborns, toddlers, tweens, teens, and pregnant women. Yes, pregnant women! Their bodies are using a TON of energy to create new life, and so their sleep needs go way up as well.
My wife did an experiment years ago. She always has horrible morning sickness, and we guessed it was being exacerbated by lack of sleep. She decided to go to bed when the toddlers did. She also opted to take naps when they took naps.
It worked really well. Her morning sickness was minimal, and it was also the fastest it had ever ended for her. It did not last as long as usual. And for me, I got a lot of work done at night because it was so quiet!
We suggest having everyone in the family come up with a bedtime goal. If sleep habits are particularly bad, maybe even consider making the bedtime goal a priority habit. Come up with some good rewards for earning Mastery Points for bedtime.
Every family is different, and every individual is different, so we will not make specific time recommendations. But we will say that the old adage is true, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a [person] healthy, wealthy, and wise”. You will definitely notice an increase in health if you go to bed early.
I heard a story years ago about an elderly man who had just started a new position in a large charitable organization. A senior leader pulled him aside and told him, “If you are going to survive, you’d better get to bed by 9:00.” The physical, mental, and emotional toll the job took on him demanded that he get to bed early.
I once had a college professor explain to me what it means to go to bed early. He said it simply means to go to bed “before you get grouchy”. So, if you notice yourself getting grouchy, that may be a clue that it’s time for bed. Just a thought.
We haven’t really touched on the physical implications of sleep and the psychological needs, but suffice it to say: you need sleep. It’s the body’s time to repair itself from the activities of the day. Some argue that sleep is unnecessary or unimportant, but the truth is your body actually needs sleep to function. If you want to be effective and efficient in your life and achieve your goals, you got to get the right amount of sleep. Being well-rested is the foundation for everything else.
Do you agree with our conclusions? How does sleep affect you? Is there something you should change with your schedule? Leave a comment below.