by Alamar Alamar, EdD
Sleep is incredibly important to our mental and physical well-being. But how many of us actually get enough rest? We make excuses about how shutting down for seven-to-eight hours is impossible given our busy and overextended schedules. However, the fact is sleep deprivation can leave us irritable, moody, unable to focus, and without energy. And, as if that were not enough, in addition to health problems including heart trouble and depression, research suggests that lack of sleep adversely affects our memory, our problem-solving abilities, and our ability to form sound judgments. These are skills adults need daily to be productive and children need as they face their own academic and social challenges.
We know we are better at what we do on a good night’s rest, and that we parent with more patience when we are not exhausted. So wouldn’t you want your child to face their day-to-day academic and social interactions with a good night’s sleep under their belts? Think about it, would you want your child facing a difficult test or a tricky lunchroom dilemma with a best friend with a lack of attention, poor reaction time, or lack of resilience?
Optimum sleep times vary from age to age and from person to person. They can even vary during the time of year or current activity level. Even with all the variables, there are guidelines to help you design a sleep plan for you and your family. The National Sleep Foundation suggests the following:
- Infants, 12 to 15 hours
- Toddlers, 11-14 hours
- Preschool children, 10 to 13 hours
- Elementary-school-aged children, 9 to 11 hours
- Adolescents, 8 to 10 hours
- Adults, 7 to 9 hours
Think you can’t do it? Are you convinced that you need those late-night hours to catch up or decompress? Trust me. It will take some work and planning, but you and your family can get on a schedule that will make a significant difference. As a result, you will all have more energy and focus. You’ll have more patience and may even get along better with everyone. Remember that it’s easy to fall back on old bedtime habits so you must be extra mindful in the first few weeks to be consistent. When the clock strikes -whatever time – turn off the lights, the computer, the phone, and hit the pillow.
Design your family’s sleep plan with as much care as you put into your nutrition intake, education opportunities, and social lives. Begin by thinking about what needs to be done and what time everyone needs to start doing it. Then count backwards to an ideal bedtime for each member of the family. Consider that everyone is different and has different obligations and possibly schedules. Be clear that this is as important as any other aspect of health routines like brushing teeth, wearing a bicycle helmet, etc. (in other words, it’s not negotiable unless there is an isolated or special event taking place). And model the importance by setting up your own routine.
Here are some tips to help you firmly establish your family sleep schedule:
– Keep all interactive media out of bedrooms (TV in a common area, cell phones charging in the kitchen, and all digital devices stowed outside the bedroom).
– Turn all bright screens off at least thirty minutes (if not more) before bed to allow the body to release its own natural sleep hormone, melatonin.
– Avoid vigorous exercise, caffeine, alcohol, or heavy meals close to bedtime.
– Create a “winding down” routine for yourself, and work with each family member to help create his or her own routine. This might include a warm bath or shower, some calm music, and preparation for the next day (packing a purse or backpack, setting out clothes).
– Work with your kids at each stage to define a good bedtime and accommodate specific needs.
With infants and toddlers, it’s crucial to start a bedtime routine and to keep it as consistent as possible. Children need rest as they grow for optimal physical and emotional health. Elementary-aged kids may try to negotiate later bedtimes, and it’s ok and in fact advisable, to re-structure the routine with their input. However, they should be aware that providing input does not mean they’re making the final decisions. You’re still calling the shots. They may want to stay up later than a younger sibling (and even 15 minutes can gain you some points in your negotiations). Or, if they want to watch a TV show you can record it for viewing in the future. Adolescents are often on their own schedule and it’s hard but also important to keep them in a routine. Allow them some flexibility in designing the overall schedule and in making some decisions when things come up. Point to specific examples of when it’s been a particular challenge to function on little sleep. (More sleep before a test is shown to be more beneficial academically than staying up late to cram).
Finally, parents need to teach by example. Go to bed at a decent hour. You’ll reap great benefits and you’ll be more awake and able to keep a mindful eye on your kid’s homework, playtime and social activities. They’re all important, of course, and there are only so many hours in the day. That said, a good night’s sleep makes all the other activities better, and enables each member of the family to be fully present, engaged and ultimately happier.
Amy combines academic research, educational practice, and real-world experience in her writing and workshops to help parents find perspective and develop confidence in raising their families and to help teachers better understand their own practice. She gains invaluable insights from her own personal research subjects (AKA her children and husband) whom she learns from and enjoys every day.
Amy Alamar, EdD, has worked in the field of education as a teacher, teacher educator, researcher, parent educator, and education reformer for over fifteen years. In late 2014, Amy published her first book entitled: Parenting for the Genius: Developing Confidence in Your Parenting through Reflective Practice (For the Genius Press, 2014). The book is a comprehensive guide to becoming the most thoughtful and confident parent possible, with anecdotes and details relating to the guidance and support of children in specific age ranges throughout their formative years. Amy is also a contributing author to the Disney parenting website, Babble.com.
As a frequent speaker to parent and faculty groups, Amy focuses on a wide range of parenting topics including student stress and wellbeing, raising digital natives in the information age, and parenting kids with character. She also conducts faculty development workshops that focus on engagement with learning, professional communication, and curriculum design. She was an invited guest of Michelle Obama at the White House for a conversation about kids’ health in 2016.