Set a countdown to lights out
Why is a consistent routine so important for children? “It’s a question of knowing what to expect,” says Steven Schachter, a clinical psychologist in Montreal who works with children, teens and families. “That’s why younger kids like to hear the same book 14 times in a row; there’s a sense of security in knowing what’s going to come up, and they feel good about that. If things start to change, they get anxious.”
A bedtime ritual acts like a nightly countdown to lights out. This is vital for kids, he adds, because their concept of time is different from adults’. When kids can predict the order of events — dinner, bath, pyjamas, tooth brushing, stories, bed — it helps them mark the passage of time and lets them know where they are in the process.
That means even when you can’t be around to oversee bedtime, your child’s regular routine should start at about the same time and follow the same general steps. “The routine is more important than the caregiver,” says Shelly Weiss, a Toronto neurologist and author of Better Sleep for Your Baby & Child.
So the first step is coming up with a bedtime routine that both parents are comfortable with and can execute solo when the other isn’t available. That’s what Carrie Karhuniemi and her husband, Rick, decided to do when they experienced bedtime challenges with son Mika, now seven, and daughter Maija, three. “The children were struggling and stressed out, and wouldn’t stay in bed,” says the 34-year-old Tottenham, Ont., mother. She works as an insurance claims specialist who also teaches a class one night a week, and occasionally travels for business. At that time, regardless of which parent was home and in charge of bedtime, getting the children to sleep was a two-hour process.
Then, about a year ago, Carrie’s sister observed, “The kids just miss you. You haven’t seen them all day and then you ship them off to bed.” It was true — the kids would be left to play or watch TV while Mom or Dad cooked dinner and attended to household chores. There was no structure to the family’s evenings and very little real togetherness.
So the couple began spending at least an hour of playtime with the kids after dinner, followed by baths, books and bed. If Carrie is home, playtime might take the form of a make-believe fashion show, with each child walking down the kitchen “runway” while she’s doing the dishes. When Rick’s in charge, he prefers to spend the time doing something more active, like trampolining. The activities work well with the couple’s different parenting styles and help the children burn off excess energy before unwinding for the night. Baths come next to calm the children down; then they’re allowed to read by themselves until lights out at 8:30. “Now the kids are so much more co-operative,” Carrie says, and Mika will often fall asleep with a book on his chest before she even turns off the lights.
Similarly, Toronto graphic designer Audrey Marshall,* who separated from her husband last year, uses a simple bedtime routine with four-year-old Lily, which her dad also follows on the three nights a week she stays with him. “The bath is done by 8 p.m., we lower the lights, relax and read until 8:30 or 9,” she says. To provide an extra layer of consistency and secur-ity, some of Lily’s stuffed animals and dolls move back and forth between the two households — and her two beds.
Just because your wee one sleeps beautifully using one particular bedtime routine doesn’t mean every caregiver has to follow that plan precisely the same way or risk a throwback to bedside battles and multiple night wakings. “A child might like to have a story or song, but don’t worry about too many specifics — like if you have the same singing voice,” says Weiss.
And, as is true with all rules, there are exceptions. As Portia Belmont and David Tickell discovered, sometimes a bedtime ritual that works famously with one caregiver doesn’t go over well with another. With the 14- to 16-hour shifts they typically put in on film shoots (he’s a gaffer, or head lighting technician, and until recently she worked as a script supervisor), the Vancouver couple often relied on Tickell’s sister Susan to look after their daughter Maia, three. But her usual bedtime ritual of reading stories, reciting a framed poem hung on her bedroom wall, then simply switching off the light didn’t work when Susan tried it. “Maia just cried,” says Belmont. So the aunt and niece developed their own routine: Maia got wrapped up in her special pink fleece blanket, fell asleep on Susan’s lap on the couch, and was put to bed half an hour later. Susan followed the routine every time she babysat, and Maia consistently slept through the night.
Outline your expectations
For single mother Sharon Medina,* who works an early morning shift as a letter carrier in Ajax, Ont., being clear with her three kids about their bedtime schedule — and hers — is essential. Because she rises as early as 4:30 a.m., she’s often in bed before Lucas, 13, Isabella, 11, and Olivia, 10, particularly on weekends, when she lets them stay up until 11 p.m. On weeknights, however, bedtime is a strict 8:30 to 9 p.m. “I’m not sure if it’s fair [for preteens to go to bed so early] or not, but that’s just the way it is,” she says. “They know no talking, no giggling, just straight to sleep because Mom needs to get up early.”
Medina tells the kids what’s to gain if they comply, and what’s at risk if they don’t. “I say, ‘If you let me get to sleep early, then I won’t be too tired to do the activities you want to do together, like going swimming after school or to a movie on Friday.’”
Sleep expert Weiss agrees that with older kids, using positive reinforcement and discussing natural consequences can help parents promote healthy sleep habits, especially on nights when they’re not available to supervise.
Medina also uses technology to head off bedtime battles with her kids. A PVR records late-evening television programs, such as American Idol, that the kids want to see, and they are allowed to get up early the next morning and watch episodes before school (and before their classmates can ruin the fun by telling them what happened).
Say goodbye to guilt
When parents routinely miss their kids’ bedtime because of shift work or other commitments, often the biggest hurdle has nothing to do with sleep: It’s the worry that not being around at that time will somehow damage their children. Creating a parent-child attachment is vital for kids to have a sense of security, but this bonding doesn’t have to happen in the evening. And wasting energy on guilt or burning yourself out trying to do it all certainly won’t help the situation, says clinical psychologist Schachter. “If you aren’t there to make the connection at bedtime, do it some other way,” he says. A daily walk to school can provide uninterrupted one-on-one time when your child might open up and talk. “Kids are resilient,” he adds. “The important thing is to connect with your child when you are there.”
*Names changed by request.