Better Bedtimes

When is bedtime too late? What are the signs that a child is sleep-deprived? Answers to these questions and more.


+ enlarge image The bottom line: Arrange bedtime to allow your child enough sleep.

Pat Brogan, a mother of four, is also a vice president for a computer services company in the San Francisco area. While her career has demanded a lot of time, she made a commitment long ago not to allow it to detract from her time with her children.

Something, of course, had to give. In her family's case, it was the traditional idea of an appropriate bedtime for her children. "I've always kept them up late so I could spend as much time with them as possible," says Brogan. Nap times were arranged during the day to allow the children, as babies and toddlers, to stay up until 11 p.m.

If this sounds late to you, wake up to today's facts. "Bedtime has kind of dropped by the wayside for many parents as an important component in a child's well-being," says Sara Harkness, associate professor of human development and anthropology at Penn State University. In today's world where two-career households and evening soccer practices are the norm, getting kids to bed by 8 p.m. isn't always possible.

Bedtime vs. Total Sleep

Doctors certainly understand the logistical challenges facing parents today, but is this anytime-bedtime trend healthy?

"Pediatricians in general have become more flexible in terms of guiding parents toward appropriate bedtimes," says Dr. Leslie Tadzynski Shur, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Though doctors once clung to the 8-to-8:30 p.m. bedtime, many, including Dr. Shur, now emphasize that total sleep time is more important than actual bedtime. She sees no reason that a child couldn't go to bed at midnight -- provided he or she could always sleep until 10:00 or 11:00 the next morning. But that total sleep time is crucial.

"Kids who don't get enough sleep tend to have behavioral problems," says Dr. Rafael Pelayo, staff physician at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. When children are sleepy, he explains, they unconsciously begin to look for things to stimulate them. Often this need emerges as disruptive behavior. Some of these kids, he says, seem hyperactive during the day. "But it's not hyperactivity -- it's actually sleep deprivation."

Another major sign of sleep deprivation, says Pelayo, is when a preadolescent child sleeps significantly later on the weekends than during the week. "Good sleepers don't sleep in over the weekend."

The Need for Routines

Harkness and her colleague, Charles Super, have studied families in Holland. Today's Dutch parents, Harkness says, were brought up to value routine in the lives of babies and young children. The importance of a regular bedtime is unquestioned: The Dutch children Harkness and Super studied go to bed by 7:30 each evening until age 7 or 8.

The U.S. today presents a dramatically different picture. Here, says Harkness, parents place an emphasis on "maximizing their children's developmental capacities through educational activities and competitive activities." Combine this with the often-erratic nature of any dual-career household's day-to-day schedule and the chance of living by established routines becomes a long shot.

To many experts, failure to establish routines can significantly reduce the chance that the young children in the family are getting enough sleep. "Think of sleep as a rhythm," says Dr. Pelayo. "The only way to get into a rhythm is to be consistent."

Shur suggests that at least through preschool age, parents should try to enforce the same nightly routine -- for example, bath, snack, brushing teeth, and reading a story.

How to Make Changes

Dr. Shur says there are no specific guidelines for how much sleep is required at each stage of life, but a general rule is eight to 12 hours a day from toddlerhood through adulthood. Most children have an internal clock and will sleep as much as needed unless they're awakened by an alarm clock, a parent, or something else. "If your child is sleeping eight hours a day and is always cranky, unless there's an ear infection or other problem, he may not be getting enough sleep," Shur says.

To adjust to an earlier bedtime, Shur suggests moving bedtime and waking time back by 15 minutes each day. If your child is accustomed to taking a late-afternoon nap that is pushing evening bedtime too late, try letting her sleep for about a half hour just to refresh. "Don't go longer than 45 minutes, or she'll be sleeping too deeply when you wake her," she says. Gradually you and your children can reach a bedtime that works for everyone.

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