Alright, let me just start off here by saying, honestly and sincerely, no judgment for what might have gone down in the last couple of months. I know... I’m a child sleep consultant and you may think that I’m going to give you a hard time for the late nights or lack of routine that may have taken place over your summer vacation. But I get it. I really do.
I’m a mother myself and I know how precious these summer months are, especially in Minnesota where our gorgeous, warm weather days are limited. You want to squeeze in every minute of summer joy before the snow returns. If it’s a choice between consistent bedtimes and staying up to watch the fireworks, who could resist?
So no matter what might have happened over the summer vacation, all is forgiven. The goal now is to get your child back on track so that they can get back to sleep at a reasonable time before they head back to school. So I hope you’ll keep reading without fear of any finger pointing or talk of what should have been done differently. I promise you, it’s not in here.
Set a Bedtime and Stick to It
So first things first. What time should your kids be going to bed? Well, a lot of parents I work with are surprised to hear that I recommend somewhere between 7:00 and 8:00 at night. They’re even more surprised when I tell them that I suggest they keep that bedtime until their child is about 12 years old. There are two reasons why I think kids should be in bed, and by that I mean sleeping, by 8:00 at night. First, kids need at least 10 hours of sleep a night. An extra hour or two on top of that is never a bad thing, but you obviously have to make those adjustments based on your own observations.
Regardless, if your toddler needs to be up by 7:00 A.M. in order to get ready for school, they should be asleep by 9:00pm at the latest. Factor in the time it takes them to get to fall asleep after they get into bed, plus the requests for a glass of water or to use the bathroom half an hour after you close their door, and 8:00 is pretty much the latest they can get into bed and still get the sleep they need. Second, you and your partner need to exist child-free for a few hours a day. You need to be able to watch adult shows, eat junk food without fear of being spotted, or just recharge those parenting batteries. It’s vital to your relationship with your partner and with your kids.
Alright, so now that we know when to put our kids to bed, let’s move on to the significantly more difficult issue of how.
Don’t Leave it to the Last Minute
Hopefully you’re reading this while there’s still a couple of weeks before school gets back in, because the easiest way to get back on track is little by little. If they’ve been going to bed at around 9:00 for the better part of their vacation, try moving bedtime up by about 15 minutes every 4 days until you’re back to their normal bedtime. If this requires a little deception on your part by adjusting the clocks in their room, you just go ahead and get deceptive!
Establish a Bedtime Routine
If you had an effective bedtime routine before your summer vacation threw everything into upheaval, then try to re-implement it as much as possible. Familiarity will definitely help your child settle back into the schedule quicker and with less resistance than trying out something new. On the other hand, if this is your first go at implementing a bedtime routine, let me just stress how much easier a repetitive, predictable bedtime routine can make your life. When your child’s body and brain start to associate things like baths, stories, brushing teeth, putting on PJs, all done in the same order at the same time every night, it cues up their melatonin production, making sleep come easier. I seriously can’t recommend bedtime routines highly enough.
Use a Timer
Of course, things like baths and stories are super fun, so there is a tendency for your toddler to try and negotiate for more time in the tub, or one more story. If you find yourself constantly having to play sheriff, a timer can be your best friend for keeping things on schedule, and as silly as it may sound, takes the blame off of you and puts it on the timer. Mom can be reasoned with, but the timer is downright unwavering.
Turn off the Screens
Along with the slack enforcement of bedtimes during the summer, we also tend to ease up on the rules surrounding TV, video games, or otherwise staring at screens in the hours leading up to bedtime. After all, there’s no homework to be done, so maybe we can allow a little leeway for an extra episode or two. The thing about screens, whether they’re phones, TVs, computers, or tablets, is that they put out a massive amount of blue light. Our brains associate blue light with sunshine, and therefore daytime, so screens before bed can actually have the unwanted effect of firing your kid’s system back up when it should be powering down. Try to avoid any screen time for at least two hours before bed. (Side note, this also applies to adults, so if you’re having trouble falling asleep at night, try reading instead of watching TV before you turn in.)
Turn to the Dark Side
And while we’re on the subject of light, for many of you living in the northern areas of the planet, you may notice that it doesn’t get dark until significantly later than 8:00, and the only thing that simulates sunlight better than a TV screen is actual sunlight. If your child’s bedroom is still lit up when you’re putting them to bed, I suggest investing in a set of blackout blinds. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You can get a six-pack of cheap-o blinds on Amazon for around thirty bucks, or even something called non-adhesive window film, which is just plastic you can cut to size and slap up over the glass. If you’re concerned about aesthetics and willing to spend the money, there are plenty of color options besides black that still block out the light. Whichever way you choose to do it, get that sunlight out of the bedroom. It’ll make a world of difference, I promise you.
One final thing to add here: Having experienced some leniency regarding bedtime can suddenly transform your child into an astoundingly sharp lawyer. Arguments for why they should be allowed to stay up later are likely to be heard for at least a few days and, potentially, the next eight or ten years. Luckily, parenting is not a democracy. It is a glorious dictatorship where the parents make all the rules. Don’t give in to the pressure, because as I said earlier, this 8:00 bedtime is going to be in place for several years. The sooner they accept that as the norm and their summertime hours as a special circumstance, the easier this whole bedtime thing will be for you and for them.
So there it is, folks! I hope you had yourselves a wonderful summer vacation, and that you're still looking forward to starting school again. I promise you that, no matter what grade they’re headed into, nothing will help them go into the new school year with a better attitude and positive outlook than getting plenty of sleep. They’ll be happier, more socially outgoing, and ready to learn. And if this is your first experience with the kids out of the house since you became a mom, oh baby, let me tell you about the sweet days ahead. (Once you’ve gotten over the initial heartbreak, of course.)
Jennifer L. Vriend, PhD Fiona D. Davidson, MA Penny V. Corkum, PhD Benjamin Rusak, PhD, FRSC Christine T. Chambers, PhD Elizabeth N. McLaughlin, PhD (2013) Manipulating Sleep Duration Alters Emotional Functioning and Cognitive Performance in Children - Journal of Pediatric Psychology, Volume 38, Issue 10, 1 November 2013, Pages 1058–1069, https://doi.org/10.1093/jpepsy/jst033 2 Mindell J, Lee C, Goh D, Leichman E, Rotella K (2017). Sleep and Social-Emotional Development in Infants and Toddlers. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 46:2, 236-246, DOI: 10.1080/15374416.2016.1188701 3 Sleep efficiency (but not sleep duration) of healthy school-age children is associated with grades in math and languages - Gruber, Reut et al. Sleep Medicine , Volume 15 , Issue 12 , 1517 - 1525