I’ve always been a sleep drill sergeant. I’m that mother who mumbles too loudly, “Put that baby to bed!” when I pass you and your toddler at the Cineplex or upscale bistro at 10:45 p.m. I’ve also been known to raise my eyebrows when I see your 4-year-old nodding off during a playdate at nine in the morning. And when you casually mention how your elementary school-age kids often hit the sack around midnight—the same time as you and your spouse do—I silently wonder, Are you nuts?
Why? Because study after study shows a link between sleep, good health and school performance. And today, yet another new study reveals that teens who are sleep-deprived are more likely to experiment with alcohol and marijuana, too.
Simply put, children need more sleep than adults do—plenty more. Their bodies and brains are developing. So, parents, help them with this process by insisting they hit the pillows and the sheets! While you and I can safely average 7–8 hours each night, in the first year of life many babies need up to 18 hours per day. Some require as few as 13, and others fall somewhere in between, but this reflects a greater total than many babies and toddlers are usually getting.
Most experts agree that pre-schoolers require between 12 and 13 hours per night. Grade-schoolers, 9 or 10. And despite their vocal protestations, high-school kids need to maintain that very same sleep schedule. That means if they must rise by 6:45 a.m. to make an 8.a.m. school bell, they should be in bed around 10 p.m.!
In fact, when some U.S. high schools learned of a correlation between sleep and grades, they simply started school later—and then watched as many of their students increased their GPAs simply by getting a little more shuteye. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m.—this, when approximately 40% of U.S. schools currently begin class before 8:00 a.m.
Lack of sleep can negatively affect not only your child’s moods—and we all know how fun cranky kids can be—and cognitive abilities, but also their ability to maintain a healthy weight. It’s been shown how tired children often have difficulty concentrating, or retaining what’s being taught. They tend to overeat, too, due to fluctuating hormone levels from fatigue. That’s why they reach for more sugary snacks and constant caloric pick-me-ups during the day. Their bodies are demanding a surge of something to keep them going—sort of the equivalent of the 3 p.m. adult coffee break. The result is their weight creeps up.
I admit I was borderline bonkers—OK, downright rigid—about this issue when my kids were young. I almost never messed with their nap schedules or bedtimes, even on the weekends. Sometimes we’d forgo the work party or movie night, or politely decline the friend’s evening barbecue if it meant the children would seriously lose out on their ZZZs. Not always, but I leaned toward passing up an invitation if I knew it would keep the kids up late.
I got some comments, sure. And even more questions, including: “Don’t you feel like a prisoner in your home? Why can’t they sleep in the car? They’re kids! They’ll be fine!”
While I did occasionally let them nap in the car, I generally stuck close to home when sleep beckoned. This actually guaranteed me more freedom, not less—just in different time blocks. Because my kids were on unwavering schedules, their bodies regulated themselves. And I could plan my work, errands, and even romantic life accordingly. They dozed off like clockwork each and every afternoon, sometimes for three hours at a spell. They were ready for bed each night around 8:00 p.m., and fell asleep easily. No arguments. No pleading. Just book, prayers, kiss, and bed. Lights out. Done. Good night. And, after the teething and occasional bedwetting and toddler nightmare phases had passed, they simply never woke up during the night. I can count on exactly three fingers how many times my youngest has woken me up in the night in the last four years.
We all sleep better for it. For years they rose at 6:30 a.m., and I rose with them, even on Saturdays—a small price to pay for such regularity, in my opinion. Now, at ages 7 and 11, they go to bed around 8 and 9 p.m., respectively, on most nights and sleep until 7 a.m., sometimes later. It’s still working.
Rest assured, I remain a sleep drill sergeant. It’s not just for me—it’s for them.