We remember the first time we thought about sleep and kids. Friends several years ahead of us in the child-having department became fanatical, seemingly overnight, about getting their then-infant son home to sleep in his own crib at the same set time every day and night. Spending time with them suddenly revolved entirely around his (and, soon, his younger brother’s) sleep schedule. During the day we’d meet very early so they could be safely home by naptime. In the evenings, they would only meet us at their house for dinner, and then only after their kids were sound asleep. What fanatics, the pre-kids D & I complained to each other. How rigid they are, how difficult! What’s the matter with them? Plan our lives around a baby sleeping – we’d never be those people, we scoffed. Little did we know.
Only a few weeks into our firstborn’s life, sleep – or, rather, the fact that we hadn’t gotten much since she was born – dominated our every waking thought (so did poop, but that’s another story). To try and restore some semblance of sanity to our lives, B began reading book after book about how/when/why babies can/should sleep (our favorite is “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child”, by Dr. Marc Weissbluth). It took a few weeks, but B finally got it though her “thick skull”, as she says, that sleep is as important to a kid’s development as nutrition. Meanwhile, by talking to friends with more parenting experience than us, D realized that establishing a consistent sleep schedule (as much as that’s possible) for everyone – Mom, Dad, and baby – is critical to keep everyone from going insane.
And suddenly, we became those people. We re-oriented much of our lives around our kids’ sleeping. When we bought into kids’ sleep being the same as nutrition, expending extra effort to make sure they (and we) consistently get enough quality sleep became a no-brainer.
So we created a simple sleep routine, and we stick to it as best as we can. Naptime every day at roughly the same time and, whenever practicable, in the same place. Bedtime at roughly the same time every night, preceded by the same series of events in the same order, to facilitate calming down: bath, pajamas, brush teeth & hair, book, lullaby.
Elements of our routine have changed over the years as our kids’ sleep needs have changed. For example two daily naps gave way to one, which is now giving way to quiet time. On school days, we insist the teachers leave a daily note indicating whether and how long each kid slept, so we know what to expect that night. The standard bedtime has shifted a little later, and we put the kids to bed earlier on no-nap days earlier. But the basic principle has stayed the same: we intentionally arrange our lives around a predictable sleep schedule designed to ensure our kids regularly get the quality sleep they need. And that we can, too. (Not that we always take advantage of it!)
We’d like to say that’s the end of it. That it’s been smooth sailing, er sleeping, ever since. It hasn’t. There’s been a ridiculous number of sleep disruptions, caused by everything from teething to travel, from growing pains to special late evening events. But we’ve discovered two things to be true over the years.
First: Sleep really does make a difference. When our kids are getting consistent, quality sleep, they are considerably more likely to act resilient, resourceful, and cooperative. When sleep-deprived, their cranky sides take over and they have an infinitely harder time managing disappointment. Think shiny, happy people vs. tantruming zombies. It really is that stark.
Second: Having an established and predictable sleep routine to return to when disruptions end really does keep disrupted sleep from becoming the norm. Knowing this helps us stay (mostly) calm when sleep gets out of whack. It also allows us guilt-free permission to occasionally disrupt the routine on purpose – like to take the kids to fun events that interfere with bedtime or to accommodate travel.
So, yes, we are now those people. And we aren’t ashamed to admit it.
What’s your take on sleep? How do you deal with sleep in your family?
This is part 1 of a 3-part series on sleep. Parts 2 and 3 will dive into our individual experiences with sleep and sleep disruptions.