Before the advent of electricity, most children on most days were in bed when the sun went down and got up when the sun rose. When you put it in perspective – that’s not so long ago – and that has been the norm for as long as people have been around. We probably aren’t, yet, fully aware of all the effects of electricity on our brains. In the big picture – it’s still new and exciting. Certainly it’s use is compromising the amount of sleep we all get. There are many other pressures on the amount of time our children get to sleep too:
#1 Parents have to work so don’t collect their children and get home until late.
#2 The children’s after-school activities don’t finish until late.
#3 Parents aren’t with their children during the day, so keep them up late so that they get to spend some time with them.
Mr Owl (age six years) and Mr Butterfly (21 months) have been a bit grumpier than usual. They’ve been having a few more tantrums. Mr Owl has been a bit meaner than he usually is: nasty words; setting-up his brothers to get into trouble; being mean to the others when they’re playing – that kind of thing. Mr Butterfly has been a bit more clingy than is usual; more grizzly; more inclined to be non-compliant. They’re usually asleep by 7.30pm, which seemed early enough. We were probably wrong.
Last Tuesday Craig had a meeting at work and didn’t plan to be home until 8.00pm. So in the manner of a solo-parent (hats off to you guys) I got myself super-organised, and because we didn’t need to wait for Craig, we started our evening meal at around 5.15pm. By 5.40pm we’d eaten. By 6.00pm baths were over and I had three shiny, pyjama-ed boys. By 6.15pm all of us were in bed: two big boys snuggled next to me listening to the story, the younger one bouncing on his bum on the bed next to us. By 6.30pm, Mr Butterfly had given up on the bouncing and come to snuggle with us, Mr Hare (aged nine) took himself off to his own room (in which he’s been sleeping alone for the past week or so) and drew pictures. By 7.00pm both of the younger boys were asleep. They didn’t wake until 7.00am-ish the next morning. Bingo. Pleasant children again.
In contrast, I mucked up Mr Butterfly’s sleep-time last night and ended up with a screaming, tantruming and nasty boy for around 40 minutes until he finally fell asleep. (Even though I was with him and calm.) Over-tired he couldn’t behave; he couldn’t be calm; he couldn’t relax. In contrast the older boys, for whom we had managed their bed-time well, were snoring happily: Mr Owl (six years-old) by 6.45pm and Mr Hare (nine years-old) by 7.15pm. And yes, they slept all night.
Most western children, I believe, are sleep deprived. I know it can be difficult to get them into bed early – for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned or others. Yet as was said in the book Nurture Shock, and as I’ve long believed: the more we are learning, the more we need to sleep.
That also means, I believe,
the cleverer our children,
the more they need to sleep.
(I think this needs to be a series: I’ll talk about the amount of sleep children need another time.)
The things we usually do to make sure our children get to sleep as early as possible, which could be helpful:
#1 We have a strong rhythm (routine without a time-frame) that we follow almost every night.
#2 We eat as early as possible. (Usually Craig is in the door at 5.50pm, and we eat as soon as he arrives. We are now considering having the meal at 5.15pm as a matter of course and Craig eating later.)
#3 The boys bath/shower after they have eaten. (Reasons of: avoiding mess on pjs when they eat and relaxation of warm water.)
#4 Once they are organised they eat a small banana and have a small drink of milk. (Both of these encourage the release of tryptophan about 20 minutes later, which is a brain chemical associated with dropping off to sleep.)
#5 They go to the loo, brush their teeth and wash their faces.
#6 We go into the family bed-room together and snuggle in for story time. (When Mr Hare slept with us and Craig was in the room too, sleep time came faster for all the boys.)
#7 After story time, Mr Hare goes to his own room and Craig sits with him until Mr H. is asleep. (This is an important time for older children. We are often told all the really emotional parts to Mr Hare’s day at this time – the BIG issues he is dealing with at the moment. If we weren’t with him while he dropped off to sleep we would never hear about these concerns/problems/celebrations.)
#8 The family-room is made pitch-black. The alarm-clock is even covered with a pillow so there is no light whatsoever. I cuddle Mr Butterfly to sleep and Mr Owl snuggles into my back. This is the time Mr Owl feels he can tell me what’s going on in his world. After a short-time he is happy to stop talking and listen to the noises that Mr Butterfly makes before dropping off to sleep. And the pitch-black bit is important, I’ll cover why another day.)
#9 I climb out over the top of Mr Owl and go and do whatever I want to do. I climb out his way because he is more likely to stir and then return to sleep than Mr Butterfly who tends to stir and think it’s time to bounce.
#10 If any of the children wake before I am ready to go to bed, I go and snuggle them back to sleep. Sometimes it happens more than once, and sometimes it’s immensely frustrating.
I understand that a cooler room is better for sleeping too, but as it’s winter here it’s not currently an issue. When it’s the middle of summer I have no hesitation in allowing our older boys to sleep in a slightly moist (not wet) t-shirt and undies. They do make a noise when the shirt goes on, and they are asleep just as fast as on the cooler nights.
So, if you’re having some behaviour problems and can’t put your finger on the cause it might be worth the effort of making those bedtimes much, much earlier.
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