Early Bedtimes Never Worked For Us, And That’s OK

by Wendy Wisner
Jason Doiy / iStock

Want a surefire way to feel like a worthless parent? Pick up an essay, article, or study that offers sleep advice. You’re guaranteed to feel like you’re failing in every way.

Recently, a big sleep article about the importance of putting your kids to sleep early was making the rounds. The article contains studies, theories, and the author’s own personal experience about how imperative it is to set early bedtimes.

The tagline of the article read: “I make my kids go to sleep by 7:30 p.m., without exception. They’re happier and might even be smarter and healthier because of it.”

Shit, I thought. I’m a total fuck-up, then. You see, my kids have always gone to bed on the late side. We start winding down at 8, but the whole thing takes a freaking decade, and they aren’t usually asleep until 9 or 9:30.

But then I thought, Wait, my kids are smart and healthy. Besides the normal “I’m a kid and I lose my shit sometimes,” they are generally well-behaved. Do they seem tired sometimes? Sure, but not every day—just sometimes, like normal people do.

So maybe I’m not a screwup after all. Maybe, between naps for the wee one and sleeping late in the morning sometimes for the big one, they are getting the sleep they need. And who gives a rat’s ass how it happens, exactly? And also, what if they weren’t “smart” (however that is measured) or “healthy” (who on earth has a kid who doesn’t catch every cold known to mankind)? How could I be certain that lack of sleep is what caused it?

Some kids are night owls. Mine have always been. They also tend to like to sleep later than most in the morning. So even though articles like the one referenced above say stuff like how the more “restorative” sleep happens earlier in the night, and other scientific cockamamy stuff, maybe some kids are just meant to be the “later to bed, later to rise” types.

I have tried to get them to sleep earlier. I’ve started the bedtime ritual at 7 p.m., acted like a drill sergeant throughout their pj’s/toothbrushing/book-reading ritual, and made them get into bed by 8. But when the lights go out, the questions start coming: “Mommy, how hot is the sun? Mommy, why doesn’t Lisa want to play with me anymore at recess? Mommy, what will happen when you die?”

Umm, I need to answer these questions, you know? I’m not saying I need to stand on a stage and give them PowerPoint presentations about astronomy, friendship, and death, but I’m not going to ignore the deep questions that always seem to surface at 8 p.m. in my house. This is an important time, and I’m OK with relishing in it for a bit with my kids, even if it pushes their shut-eye to a slightly later hour.

And besides the fact that I think a drawn-out bedtime ritual is OK — and actually quite vital to my kids’ lives — it just wouldn’t work for us strategically to start any earlier. First, my older son is in school. He comes home at 3 (later if he stays after school), unwinds with a snack and TV/video games. Then it’s dinner, homework, and Daddy coming home. That gets us to 7 p.m.

My kids spending time with their dad every day is non-negotiable for us. I know some people are OK with putting their kids to bed before their spouses are home, but we don’t do that unless my husband is going to be home really late. Not only do I want my kids to get to play with him a little before the bedtime ritual begins, but he is also a vital part of that ritual. In fact, my kids are so used to both of us putting them to bed that if my husband comes home late, they have trouble falling asleep without him.

Is that a bad habit? Maybe to some people. Maybe all of what we do is chock-full of bad habits, poor sleep associations, crutches, and hand-holding. I mean, not only do we allow our kids to go to sleep on the later side, but we also lie down with them until they fall asleep if they need that.

Oh crap. Talk about violating the sleep code there. Oops.

I think the bottom line here is that all families need to do what works for them. Early sleep times are where it’s at for you? Yay! More power to you! Do you have a couple of night owls like me? Fist bump, my friend. Theories are theories — that’s all they are. And even research is hypothetical. As we know, a study can come out next week saying something as contradictory as late bedtimes turn kids into rocket scientists.

So when it comes to sleep (and anything else parenting-related), I look at it like this: You do what works for you and your kids. Anything else is tangential, and often just adds a lot of unnecessary stress to your life.