Today, as we round out our Back to School Series, we are turning our attention to sleep. We all crave it, love it, and many of us have a tumultuous challenging relationship with sleep.
So let’s talk about it- specifically, how moms can get more sleep, at each and every stage of your children’s lives.
We all know that rest is essential. Eight hours a night. That’s the number we’re supposed to be shooting for.
“Sure, no problem!” (Said no mom ever!)
What about you? Have you just thrown in the towel? At this stage in the game, have you pretty much given up? Have you decided that you’ll rest when they’re all off to college, assuming you survive until then? And in the meantime, you’ll continue to stumble and fumble through the fog, just hoping that you don’t accidentally send the dirty laundry in the lunch box and the sandwich through the washing machine?
Between us, we have six kids (11 months, 6, 9, 9, 11, and 14 years) so we’ve had our share of child-induced under-eye bags.
Our goal today: to show you how we have made (and are making) our own rest a priority at different stages in our kids’ lives, and give you practical, applicable tips on how to get the most rest possible.
We’d love to tell you we can teach you today how to get eight hours of sleep every single night, for the rest of your tenure as a mom with kids at home, but you know we like to keep it real. Our wish for you: that you’ll be able to get more rest, more quality rest, and rebound easier when life happens and you simply don’t hit your goals where sleep is concerned.
Stage One: Birth to One Year
The bottom line: year one is about survival.
Your mantra for year one: “I’m doing the best I can, and it won’t last forever.”
Here’s a little-known fact: babies don’t read books.
Just kidding. Obviously. The point is, babies don’t know that they’re happier on somewhat of a schedule, or that Mom is happier and so Mom is more relaxed, and therefore much more capable of soothing and caring for them.
Nope. Babies are little balls of instincts. They do what they need to do to get their needs met. Our job at this stage is simply to meet their needs. And ultimately, once we survive it, we often discover that we look back on that year with fondness and nostalgia. It really is a special time for you to bond with baby.
But you also want to feel some sort of semblance of yourself. How do you not totally lose your sense of you during this year?
- Sleep when baby sleeps. We know, this is almost impossible since you also have to do stuff like eat, shower, and go to the bathroom so that you can feel like a human being. So you need to figure out how this can work for you. If you have trouble falling asleep during the day, try going to sleep at night when baby goes to sleep. Yes, at 7:30 p.m. This will require your partner or a helper to take care of your other kids, so we know it is difficult. Remember, just do the best you can. Sleep any chance you get. (Have a ton of laundry and dishes to do? Permission granted to forget about it!)
- After the first three months or so, you can hope to discover some sort of schedule. Talk to your girlfriends, your pediatrician, and trust your ability to care for your baby, so that you can together find a nice routine.
- Exercise. Yes, we’re serious. No, we’re not suggesting you leave your baby in a gym daycare if you’re not comfortable with it. Nor are we even suggesting you need to go to the gym, or be on any formal workout routine whatsoever. However, we are suggesting that you squeeze something in. Anything will help you. This has absolutely nothing to do with getting back your pre-baby body. This isn’t about vanity. This is about your sanity and your happiness. A few lunges in the kitchen here, a few crunches on the living room floor there, maybe a 20-minute walk with baby in the stroller. Seek endorphins, in any way you can get them. You’ll feel better and sleep better as well.
- Remember your mantra: “do the best you can, and remember: it won’t last forever.”
Stage Two: Preschool Years
If you can set the stage, the preschool years can be pretty great.
Your mantra for the preschool years: “My child and I both do better when I take the lead.”
We are all about being deliberate with your time, and helping your preschoolers to get sufficient rest can turn into a wonderful self-fulfilling prophecy if you are willing to invest the time and energy.
These years are where you can set the stage, for better or for worse. During these years, you can begin to help your child learn the value of good rest, teach great sleep habits, and set yourself up for easier years to come.
However, you need to be willing to take the lead.
Yes, we said that twice. Here’s why: preschoolers can be challenging (understatement!). The little darlings want to assert their will, they often don’t like to listen to reason, and they are masters at getting mom to snuggle when they really should be sleeping.
The beautiful thing? They need a lot of sleep! So, if you can set great habits now, you’ll actually find room for you when they are sleeping. From age two to five, children need between 10 and 13 hours of sleep. Even if they’re on the short end of that, at ten hours, that’s ideally a couple hours you gain in your day! You see the awesomeness there, right?
How can you get your preschoolers to sleep well, so that you can sleep well?
- Keep to a schedule. This is no different than for you as an adult. We all benefit from a regular sleep-wake schedule, it allows us to fall asleep easier, stay asleep better, and wake refreshed. You’re not a bad mom if you’re shutting down playing outside because you know that your child does better starting bedtime by 7:30. In fact, you’re a great mom if you advocate for your child’s rest.
- Create an evening ritual. Just as you likely benefit from a gradual slowing-down routine in the evening, and just as it likely helps you to fall asleep easier, children are no different. When young children know that bath time is followed by a book, which is followed by prayers, which is followed by lights out, they naturally begin to wind down when that bath time starts. The ritual is comforting and only serves to make bedtime easier.
- Be willing to be firm. Oh my gosh, do preschool kids have the cutest little voices, and oh my goodness, “Mom?” from those little voices can make it hard to shut the door and walk away! However, the more you give, the more they will ask. My (Cori) daughter loves to chat at bedtime. She can talk about nothing and go on and on and on. So, when I begin to shut the door, I don’t go back in. I may stand there for a minute and listen and “mm hmm” a few times. I may answer one question, perhaps two. But when it’s time to shut the door and walk away, I have had to not allow myself to be sucked back in! So she has learned: she can keep talking, but just as persistent as she is, I am as well. She can keep talking and I will keep saying, “Okay honey, love you, good night,” and within a minute or two of that, the door is shut and we are done. And within a few minutes after that, I can check on her, and she’s asleep!
- Get to bed at a reasonable hour. Does your preschooler sleep from 8 to 6? Then you know you’ll be up by six. Reverse-engineer your own bedtime so that you’ll get enough sleep. Just as you must be firm with your preschooler, do the same with yourself. You may want to hang out with James Cordon late night, but you’ll be happier and you’ll have more energy to be firm at bedtime the next night, and create a positive cycle, if you do what you need to do and get to bed!
Stage Three: Elementary School (into Middle School)
We have lumped elementary school and middle school together for a couple of reasons. First of all, once your child gets into elementary school, they are smart enough to understand rules, and to understand when you talk to them about the health benefits of getting enough rest each and every night. Secondly, the sleep needs of elementary school and middle school kids are pretty similar, ranging from 10 to 13 hours. And finally, we as parents tend to still have control over their schedules up until high school, for the most part.
What does this all mean?
Your mantra for the elementary to middle school years: “As the parent, my goal is to be a guiding force. While I have the final say, I want to empower my child to create great sleep habits.”
Stay with us here while we break this down.
We believe strongly that we do have authority in our households. However, we also know that a heavy hand just creates friction, and sets the stage for rebellion.
So our goal during these years is about setting the stage. Our wish is to teach, to empower, to educate, at all stages.
How you handle sleep, and teaching your children about sleep, at this stage, can make the high school years easier, and also help your child to have great sleep habits as an adult.
- Talk about how important sleep is. Just as you’ll talk to them about nutrition and exercise, talk to them about sleep. When they’re struggling and you know it’s because they’re tired, use it as a teaching moment. Gently say, “You know, I think you might be upset right now partially because you’re tired. Let’s figure this out, and then let’s make sure you get enough sleep tonight. It’s easier to handle tough stuff when you’ve had enough sleep.” If you have budding athletes, you can talk about how they will do better in their sports if they get enough rest. Be on the lookout for teachable moments. Remember: it’s about helping them understand how important sleep is, so that they can begin to want it for themselves, and you can move away from being the “sleep dictator.”
- Empower them by letting them create their bedtime routine. My (Cathy’s) 9 year old daughter is very social and as long as there are people in the house (usually dad) awake, she wants to be part of the action. She knows she needs a wind-down time between awake and asleep. Now that she can read by herself and enjoys it, she has created her own bedtime routine of reading a few pages in a chapter book (right now it’s Charlotte’s Web) in bed before she turns out the light. This helps her decompress and the best part is she came up with it herself! (OK, maybe mom deserves a little credit for 9 years of reading stories before bed…)
- And, just as with preschoolers: get yourself to bed! As your kids get older, each year their activities will keep them up, and even out of the house, later and later. For your own well-being, try to make it a habit of getting yourself to bed as soon as possible after the last child gets to bed. This will only help you when you get to the high school years!
Stage Four: High School
High school is where, if you’ve created good habits along the way, you increase your odds of success exponentially. If not, it can be a free-for-all!
Once your child gets to high school, the importance of being a guide versus a dictator becomes more important than ever. Teenagers are all about finding their independence, so the more you give them the opportunity to rebel, the more they will take it. For that reason, you will want to “lay down the law” as infrequently as possible. Let’s discuss, but first, your mantra.
Your mantra for the high school years: “I let my child choose his or her bedtime, but within reason, and with plenty of gentle guidance.”
Ideally by high school you’ve set the stage and your child understands the value of good rest, knows why and how to get plenty of sleep, and you just simply support those habits. However, if you haven’t, it’s definitely not too late.
The beautiful thing about teenagers is that we can talk to them like adults. Yes, they still need our guidance, sometimes with a firm hand, but when they struggle academically or physically, we can help them troubleshoot by talking about their habits surrounding their nutrition, fitness, and rest. The most important thing here is to remember: you’re there to guide.
Tips for being the guide:
- Consider your language. This goes for pretty much any topic with our teens, but here’s an example related to sleep:
- How not to talk to a sleepy, grumpy teenager about sleep: “Yeah, no wonder you’re tired! How can you honestly expect to stay up until 11:00 on your phone and then still get on the bus by 7?”
- How to talk to a sleepy, grumpy teenager about sleep: “Ugh, I’m so sorry you’re struggling. It seems like you’ve had a lot of late nights lately. Do you think that might be a factor? Is there anything I can do to help you maybe get more rest?”
- See the difference? While your teenager’s sleep habits may be driving you crazy, and you may totally already know how to fix them, whenever possible, try to be an ally rather than a dictator. Don’t give your teenager anything to rebel against, communicate that you’re there to be a support system, and then they can ask for help or take your advice without having to lose face.
- Encourage healthy habits. Again, language is everything here, but as with every age, talk about what good rest looks like. The best way to do this is to model it for yourself. I (Cori) am an early riser, to get in my workout and be ready to be at my best to help my kids get a great start in the morning, so I model and encourage sensible bedtimes. Even at 6:15, my teenager’s wake time is a good hour or more after mine, so I need to go to bed. The great thing is, I can encourage my son to get to bed because I want to get to bed! Can I force him? No, of course not. But even in high school, we enjoy our evening rituals of prayers and checking in at the end of the day, so he knows if he wants those couple of minutes with me, he can’t expect to stay up too late… because I won’t be up too late!
- And on that note: get yourself to bed! The biggest challenge with teenagers is that they want to hang out later. It’s a scientific fact: the circadian rhythm of teens shifts during adolescence, and their bodies naturally gravitate towards later nights and sleeping in. With school starting so early, we still have to guide and encourage them to fight that tide and stay on a healthy sleep schedule, but when they have the ability to stay up later, they’re often going to want to do so- especially if it has anything to do with socializing! So, there will be nights you’re waiting up or doing a late night pick-up from a football game or a friend’s house. It’s going to happen. Your mission: get into the habit of winding down as soon as possible on these nights, and do the best you can. As we all know, some nights you just do the best you can!
- Finally: remember, you are still the adult. If you’ve established an environment where your teen knows you’re on his or her side, then every now and then you may have to lay down the law, and it should be met with only a sensible amount of resistance. Sometimes you simply do know best, and have to shut down a late-night activity, in the best interests of both your bedtimes!
Final Consideration: Kids at Varying Stages
Well, of course this will happen! You may be like me (Cori) and have one in elementary school, one in middle school, and one in high school. Or you may have two in elementary school and one in the baby stages like Cathy.
The best advice here is to hang on for dear life!
Just kidding. In all seriousness, it can be hard when your teenager has you out at his or her soccer game or band concert, but you have a baby that needs to get to bed- or you need to get to bed!
This is where moms earn the right to call themselves flexible.
We all do what we have to do. As our children’s activities keep us out later and later, it’s only natural that we’ll be out later, and up later. But with younger kids needing their rest, you must pick and choose.
Often it comes down to: who can survive on a little lost sleep? And the answer is usually: mom, and older children.
Younger kids have a harder time with lost sleep, and so we typically have to try to adjust the rest of the family as much as we can in order to serve the needs of the youngest family members. And that’s okay! Older kids are also capable of understanding why you might miss a track meet on occasion because the baby just can’t handle another late night. And on occasion, baby has to handle a late night!
Our purpose here today was to give you an outline, a way to think about caring for your rest within the demands and needs of your children’s rest.
But as always: You are the expert on you, and on your children. Trust your instincts, be willing to be firm, know that flexibility is a basic mom requirement, and you’ll find your rhythm.
What would you add? How have you found a way to get decent rest at varying stages of your children’s lives? What have been the easiest and most challenging stages for you? Comment and share so we can keep the conversation going!
Cori and Cathy