It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Later and Later bedtimes

When does your tot go to bed? Your school-age child? Your teen? Chances are increasing, statistically, that the answer is “too late”.

The Globe and Mail published an article* a while back discussing childrens’ bedtimes, and how they’re getting later, generation by generation. Is this because we need less sleep than a generation or two ago? No. Does this explain road rage? Probably. Does this help explain the huge increase in behavioural disabilities? I’m almost certain of it.

We take great pride in our “busy-ness”. Ask anyone how they’ve been lately, and they say, with a rueful grin, “Busy.” And we all nod sagely, yes, yes, we know how it is. And we do know how it is, of course.

We adults also get all macho about how little sleep we need. We boast about our late nights, and, if we’re in the minority who get to bed at a healthy hour, we feel compelled to apologize for our un-coolness. Going to bed before exhaustion hits is seen as a weakness. This is wrong. Just plain wrong.

Our children need their sleep, they’re not getting it, and it is not good enough to lay all the blame at the altar of busy-ness. One blogger not too long ago said their family couldn’t use a certain method of sleep-training because their lifestyle would be too constrained if they had to ‘make their lives stop’ for sleep and nap-time.

To a certain extent, there is justification in this position. If the only time you can get the child to a necessary appointment is during afternoon nap, well, you prepare for a cranky child and you take them anyway. As long as it’s necessary, and there is no other time to do it. Once in a while. But if your life is set up in such a way that your child is consistently getting less sleep than they need, this is a problem, and, for your child’s health, you need to make some adjustments.

I once had clients who requested that I give their child shorter naps in the daytime, as they were having trouble getting him to sleep at night. (Actually, this happens all the time, but I am thinking of a specific family right now.) As I do with all families who make this request, I explain that before we start tweaking with the child’s sleep/wake schedule, we need to know what that schedule is. I give them some charts, and instruct them on how to fill them out. I’ll do the same at my end, and we’ll talk in three weeks.

Their discovery? Though they thought their schedule was reliable with a few exceptions, their charts showed them that their “normal” bedtime was the exception. Once they started putting him to bed at the same time every night – which meant leaving that dinner at a friend’s house early, or hiring a sitter instead of taking tot along – he fell asleep with no difficulty. Routine is so important!

What does your child need? The chart on the left is pretty standard. (It is also a link to the site from which I copied it. I didn’t spend a lot of time checking it out, but it seems a good one!) There are those that suggest more sleep for certain ages, but none that suggest less is better.

If your child is getting consistently less than what is indicated, it is possible that your child genuinely doesn’t need as much sleep. It is possible, but, frankly, it is not likely.

I had a friend who believed that her daughter, then age 7 or so, didn’t need more than seven hours sleep. “She goes to bed at ten, and she bounces out at five in the morning. And then she just goes, goes, goes all day.” All this energy must mean the child was well-rested, right?

Well, no. Counter-intuitive as it might be, I often see under-rested children who charge like maniacs through their day. I call it “being in overdrive”. Strangely, when this child had sleepovers at our home, I’d pop her in bed at eight, the same time as my same-age daughter – and she’d sleep till seven! Was it too surprising that she was having trouble in school? I think not. A good night’s sleep might not solve all her school problems (though it might!) but it would certainly help!

I am disturbed by the number of under-rested children who come through my daycare, whiney and prone to tantrums until I replace their lost sleep with solid naps. Teachers are concerned about the number of tired children they see, droopy, irritable, unable to focus and concentrate. And what about the manic children, who may not immediately appear to be “tired”? What about the sleep-deprived adults, who make small driving errors that put others at risk, adults who are irritable on the road, in airplanes, at the office, and blame everyone and everything except their bedtime? There are too many tired people out there, and it is not a good thing for our society!

*I’d provided a link, but when I checked to see that it worked, it turns out that since April 8, when the article was published, the Globe has begun requiring that you be a paid online subscriber to view it! Sorry about that!

© 2006, Mary P

April 29, 2006 - Posted by | Developmental stuff, health and safety, parenting


  1. I must confess to being guilty of this for myself, but for pumpkinpie, I am somewhat of a nap nazi. She may go to bed a bit late one or two nights a week if we go up to her grandparent’s for dinner or if she and misterpie come to pick me up from working late on Friday night, but never more than an hour, and always when she can sleep late the next morning.

    Myself? Oh, always underslept. I’ve always been a night owl, and I don’t know why I can’t seem to adjust to going to bed earlier, despite not being able to wake up late anymore. I went to bed gloriously early last night at 11, and I thought to myself this morning that I should do it more often!

    Comment by kittenpie | April 29, 2006 | Reply

  2. Our family firmly believes in getting enough sleep. And not just for the wee ones, we big guys try to get enough each night too. Result, we’re a pretty happy, even keeled bunch. When my toddler acts up, it’s usually because he hasn’t gotten enough sleep. I have also found that when he’s over tired it’s harder to get him to fall asleep. Kept on schedule, he dozes right off.

    When I taught, I could always tell which students were in need of more sleep. Parents sometimes seemed shocked by the suggestion of having their child get more sleep. Yes, it may be an inconvience, but it was a free possible solution for undesirable behaviors and learning problems.

    So glad you brought this up. 🙂

    Comment by Mamacita Tina | April 29, 2006 | Reply

  3. I’m in complete agreement. My in-laws always look at me like a freak when I tell them the kids have to nap so we can’t commit to an all day affair, etc. I get the same reaction when we leave a function in the early evening to get the kids home for bed. I was glad to see that they both get the recommended amount of sleep listed on your chart. It makes a big difference.

    Comment by Kristen | April 29, 2006 | Reply

  4. For a while we have been concerned about JT’s development. He seems delayed and often withdrawn and, frankly, we’re a bit concerned that me might have a mild form of autism (I have yet to mention this on my own blog). However, recently Andrea and I started noticing that he seemed tired a lot. We started separating JT and Bri during naps so when Bri woke up, she wouldn’t wake up JT and JT seems a lot more engaging since.

    Bri gets about 13 hours of sleep a day. JT looks like he needs 14 to 15 hours to more himself.

    Life with twins!

    Comment by Matthew | April 29, 2006 | Reply

  5. Yes, thank you! Some of N’s friend’s parents look at me like I’m nuts when I say we brush teeth and get them to bed between 7:30-8pm.
    They don’t always go to sleep right away but N has to be at school at 7:45 (which means they BOTH have to be awake to get in the car and get N there on time).
    I have noticed that BOTH my children RUN and act like maniacs MUCH more when they’re over-tired. My theory is that they do it on purpose to stay awake. If they sat still, they’d keel over and start snoring!

    Comment by LoryKC | April 29, 2006 | Reply

  6. (By the way, I clicked on your chart and it took me right to the article! I can see the chart and read the article)

    Comment by LoryKC | April 29, 2006 | Reply

  7. YAAHHHOOO!! My kids are right on target!!! Thanks for the chart, I have been wondering how many hours they should be getting.

    Comment by princessleah | April 30, 2006 | Reply

  8. When my children were little we stuck to sleep schedules because the few times we didn’t they were nightmares. Sleep patterns and schedules were all a mess…up all night sleep all day. Just horrible.

    Comment by kimmyk | April 30, 2006 | Reply

  9. Kittenpie: I was – am! – strict about bedtimes for my kids. At 12 and 17, their schoolnight bedtimes are 9 and 10, respectively, and they get up at 7ish. On weekends, how much sleep they get is anyone’s guess, because they’re with their nightowl father, who is the very last thing in the world from a “nap nazi”…

    And me? 11 would be late for me! I like my bed, thanks!

    MamacitaTina: Good for you. A lot of parents miss the connection between ‘not enough sleep’ and ‘child will not go to sleep at night’. In fact, they come, as my friend did, to the erroneous conclusion that the child resisting bed means that they’re not tired and don’t need the sleep. Wrong. It seems a bit odd that when a child is tired, he’ll resist sleep, but once you’ve seen the connection, it’s so obvious!! A tired child is harder to get to bed at night. Contrary little critters that they are…

    Kristen: It makes a huge difference! I think, because we live in a chronically sleep-deprived society, that it can be hard to convince people that getting enough sleep makes sweeping differences in character, behaviour, ability to get along. For me, it’s a quality of life issue – for the whole family. Say that to someone who never gets a full night’s sleep and thinks that’s normal, and they look at you like…like…like your in-laws look at you!!

    Matthew: Poor little JT. I’d be zoned-out and disengaged, too, if I’d been getting an hour or two less than I needed for months! (As I said to you in an email, autism generally doesn’t evidence until 18 to 24 months or even later, and before that, the child is developing normally. When the autism symptoms begin to show, the child actually regresses.)

    Lory: It’s the “sleep begets sleep” principle. The more well-rested you are, the easier it is to fall asleep when you need to! Simple. People give me the same look when I admit to turning out my teenagers’ lights on school nights. The older they get, the less people seem to think it matters. Except that it does…

    (Oh, and the link I was concerned about was to the Globe and Mail article. I had put the link in, but when I discovered you had to pay to read the article now, I removed it. The other link, the one in the chart, takes you to a medical web site, and it works just fine!)

    PrincessLeah: Hello and welcome!! Glad to know this post gave you some affirmation. It’s always good to have someone tell you you’re doing it right, isn’t it?

    Kimmyk: Sleep. I like to sleep. I don’t understand why we have such a prejudice against it in this society. It feels so gooood. (K. That does it. I’m going back to bed now…)

    Comment by Mary P. | April 30, 2006 | Reply

  10. I love sleep. I love sleeping. I live, however, with someone who does not value sleep the way I do.

    So I set a mandatory sleep time for our kids, which works really well for them (and me too frankly).

    Now if I could only get the big kid (AKA hubby) to go to bed at a certain time, I might be able to have one less cranky pants in the morning.

    Comment by Andie D. | April 30, 2006 | Reply

  11. I noticed a HUGE difference in our son when I finally night weaned him. His naps became real naps, he slept better at night, and ahhhhhh, we all slept better all around. I’d have done it way earlier (I didn’t bite the bullet until 16 months!) if I’d have known that by nursing him at night for what seemed like forever I’d have made our lives so much easier. Oops, live and learn. I think he was sleep deprived for months and months.

    Comment by Anne V | May 1, 2006 | Reply

  12. I am a total creature of habit with my daughter. She takes 2 hour naps at day care every day and goes to bed between 7:30 and 8:00 pm every night. There are times that I hear her awake and playing in her room at 6 am but normally she wakes up around 7 am, just in time for breakfast, a few minutes of cuddling/playtime, and then off to day care. On the weekends, we stick to the routine. There are times the routine gets left in the dust but they are rare and she is pretty adaptable.

    I love the routine sleep thing. I can actually schedule my day around naptime and I know that I have 1 1/2-2 hours every day that she will be asleep and I can do whatever I need to do.

    Comment by So-Called Supermom | May 1, 2006 | Reply

  13. Andie: That’s my eternal problem: the children I can train no problem, but the adults?? They’re SO set in their ways! (Me, I’d just ignore Mr Crankypants and let him fend for himself…)

    AnneV: One of the things you learn by experience. After all, nursing is a good thing, right? The trick is figure out when sleep becomes more important than night feeds, and I don’t remember anyone telling me when that was. (It’s comfortably before 12 months, generally, unless there are health issues.)

    ScSm: You just said something key, which a lot of people don’t understand: It’s because your daughter has such firm routines that she is adaptable to changes in them. It is the under-rested children who tend to freak at every little upset (like a change in routine).

    Comment by Mary P. | May 1, 2006 | Reply

  14. It really is a tough thing to get enough sleep! We are ALL about sleeping but still, looking at the chart, Sweet Boy isn’t getting TOO MUCH or anything. Bed at 8, up when he wakes up… usually around 7. For the most part he takes one long nap a day but some days… if he gets up early… we go for two shorter ones or he’s too touchy to be around by 11:30. With summer coming and the longer days it will be harder and harder to go to bed by 8….

    Comment by Homestead | May 1, 2006 | Reply

  15. I’ve always believed kids need lots of sleep and pleased to see my kids are doing OK by that chart. Mstr A has more than the average (and really needs it), LMB slightly less (and really doesn’t need the extra nap), LMD spot on:-)

    It’s important for my sanity as well as theirs!

    If you ever watch any of the super-nanny type progs on TV, the firt thing (well, pretty much the only thing sometimes) that she does is sort out the kids sleep. After that, everything becomes easy.

    I’m not looking forward to the time Mstr a comes home requesting a later bed time “because everyone else” has one, but at the moment he is happy to go to bed at 7pm – and usually grateful to be there!

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | May 2, 2006 | Reply

  16. I appreciate that 13.5 number.. You know I had it in my head an 18 month old was recommended 15 hours and that just never happens in my house.

    Pardon my type A, stuff.

    And, have you ever seen the weird but intriguing 7 o’clock bedtime book. This book recommends 7pm to bed for everyone. I don’t think I would really do it but sometimes it is a good idea.. and I guess it does intersect with the overall ‘slow living’ movement I find quite interesting.

    Comment by mo-wo | May 2, 2006 | Reply

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