I’ll be honest. No matter how much I love spending time with my kids, there’s a moment I’ve treasured every evening since I first became a mother: when they finally fall asleep. I’ll be even more frank: with days that begin with me doling out Cheerios before dawn, I’m sometimes tempted to skip the bedtime formalities and bid the kids off to the Sandman with little more than a hug, kiss, and a dulcet-toned “Goodnight, sleep tight” uttered in their general direction.
But on those nights when my need to get the kids in bed is the greatest, their sleep comes later than I care to admit if I leave them to their own devices. Since discovering that bit of parenting irony, I’ve also found studies that show that when parents take an active role in enforcing a consistent bedtime routine, kids tested higher on measures of mental development, had fewer behavioral issues, and did better in school.
The research seems undeniable. Scientists at the University College London followed 10,000 kids and tested them at ages 3, 5, and 7. Kids with consistent bedtimes beginning at age 3 performed better on cognitive tests by age 7 than children with inconsistent bedtimes.
Another study proved the truth of my own anecdotal evidence that when I don’t enforce a bedtime, my kids just stay up rather than usher themselves blissfully into slumber. According to a study published in the August 2009 issue of Sleep Medicine, children with a bedtime after 9 p.m. took longer to fall asleep and had a shorter total sleep time. Children without a consistent bedtime routine also got less sleep overall.
So what can parents do to ensure a consistent bedtime?
1. Screens Off: It turns out kids’ bedtime routine don’t need to last more than 30 minutes, but during that time, some real parenting needs to take place. One key step: making sure all screens are turned off. The brain hormone melatonin starts to rise at dusk, causing drowsiness, but because light exposure from a television or a computer monitor can suppress melatonin, experts advise switching those devices off as first step in the bedtime routine.
2. Bedtime Announcement: Experts next recommend a 15- or 10-minute warning to bedtime. It’s during that time that the brain transitions from a more alert to a more quiet state — a perfect time for helping kids change into pajamas, making sure they brush their teeth, and then reading a bedtime story (or two).
3. Keep Bedtimes on Weekends: Because an inconsistent bedtime essentially subjects kids to jetlag, experts warn that bedtimes on weekends and in the summer should only stray from the normal school-week time by an hour, or preferably, less. Just like humans haven’t adapted to getting from London to New York in only seven hours, the brain apparently hasn’t evolved yet to differentiate Friday and Saturday evening from a school night.
4. Avoid Late-Night Sweets: While pre-bedtime snacks (given 45 minutes to an hour earlier) are fine, they should really be limited to healthy options like whole fruit, a little bit of oatmeal, a slice of whole-grain toast, a bit of yogurt with granola, etc. — not a reprise of dessert or another cookie or piece of Halloween candy or a bowl of sugary cereal.
5. Read, read, read: Reading aloud may seem unnecessary once your kid is old enough to read chapter books by themselves, but the truth is that a child’s reading level is different than a child’s “listening level,” which is, as you would expect, much higher. According to Jim Trelease, the author of Read-Aloud Handbook, a child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until 8th grade, so parents can read books two, three, even four levels above their kids’ reading level (just remember to average things out if you have more than one kid in the room).
Let’s be honest, these tips shouldn’t be a huge surprise to anyone with school-aged kids, and yet I know so many parents who still struggle with bedtime issues way beyond the toddler and preschool years. My kids go to bed sooner, fall asleep faster, and wake up happier when my husband and I guide them through the process. The experts have just confirmed that this sort of active nighttime parenting makes a long-term difference in our kids’ lives.
But if you, like I, occasionally limit your bedtime parenting to calling out, “Brush your teeth and go to bed!” it’s not to late to turn things around and reverse the cycle. Like eating a healthy diet or exercising, sticking to a regular bedtime routine is a daily choice with positive benefits, and if you mess up one night, just make it a priority to enforce the routine the next night.
Scientists found that as children switched from having an irregular bedtime to a regular bedtime their behaviors improved. Hope dawns anew with each morning, so remember to set aside that nightly time to read, sing, pray, share highs and lows, or whatever lovely routine you and your kids have established together.
For more information on establishing a bedtime routine for your kids, visit the NEA Parents Page at nea.org/parents for more info.
Disclosure: This post reflects a collaboration with the National Education Association’s Raise Your Hand for Student Success campaign. All thoughts and opinions are, of course, my own.