Alright, let me just start off here by saying, honestly and sincerely, no judgment for what might have gone down over the school holidays. We've had such a tumultuous year (again) that I don't blame you if your routine has slipped over the newfound freedom of the holidays. If you've picked up a few bad habits, don't stress! I'm here to help.
I’m a child sleep consultant so you might think that I’m going to chastise you for the late bedtimes, unenforced rules, inconsistent schedules, or any of the many “inadvisables” that may have taken place over your time at home.
But I'm not. I get it. I really do. I’m a mother myself and I know how difficult the year might have been for you. You want to squeeze every minute of joy you can from these summer holidays. If it’s a choice between consistent bedtimes and staying up to watch a movie together, I mean c’mon. That’s no choice at all.
So no matter what might have happened, all is forgiven. The mission now is to get your child back on track so that they can get back to sleep at a reasonable hour the day before they head back to school.
So I hope you’ll keep reading without fear of any finger wagging or talk of what you should have 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 your kids be in bed by 7:00pm each night.
They’re even more surprised when I tell them that I suggest they keep that approximate 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 o'clock 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 7:00am 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 sleep after they get into bed, plus the inevitable request for a glass of water or an insistence that they need to use the bathroom half an hour after you close their door, and 8 o'clock is pretty much the latest they can get to bed and still get the sleep they need.
Secondly, you and your partner, if there’s one in the picture, need to exist child-free for a few hours a day. You need to be able to watch TV with swear words and sexual innuendo, to be able to eat some junk food without fear of being spotted, to just do grown-up things and to 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 days 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 9:00pm for the last few weeks, try moving bedtime up by about 15 minutes every few 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. Sometimes the ends really do justify the means.
• Establish a bedtime routine
If you had an effective bedtime routine before holiday disruptions got in the way, 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. Mum can be reasoned with, but the timer is downright unwavering.
• Turn off those screens
Along with the slack enforcement of bedtimes, we may also have eased up on the rules surrounding TV, video games, or otherwise staring at screens in the hours leading up to bedtime. After all, it's been a stressful time, so maybe we can allow a little leeway for an extra episode of Teen Titans, or whatever they're into these days.
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 ... the only thing that simulates sunlight better than a TV screen is, well, 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 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 colour 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 Mum makes all the rules! Don’t give in to the pressure, because as I said earlier, this bedtime is going to be in place for several years. The sooner they accept that as the norm the easier this whole bedtime thing will be for you and for them.
So there it is, folks! I hope you have survived these school holidays with your sanity intact, and that your kids are looking forward to starting school again. I promise you that, no matter what grade they're returning to, nothing will help them sustain a better attitude and positive outlook than getting plenty of sleep. They’ll be happier, more socially outgoing, and ready to learn.