The toughest job

In our community of friends, my family is well known for a weird trait.  We put our kids to bed very early.  Not just very early, jaw-dropping early.  I give total and complete credit for this to my wife.  And, I used to subtly side with the sometimes curious, sometimes judgmental friends and family members who found our habit odd.  But not any more.  I’ve noticed over time how our routine has become a non-issue and our children usually go to sleep happily.

flickr photo by jose777i

flickr photo by jose777i

Some people look at us like we’re crazy, and say straight out that we were missing out on “quality time” with our kids in the evenings.  Some people express envy over the “couple time” we have in the evenings while the little ones are asleep.  Most say, “well, they must get up pretty early then, huh?”  Not really.  As we learned early, from Dr. Marc Weissbluth, “sleep begats sleep”.  Hard to imagine with an adult mind.

Did I say my wife is a genius?  It’s very counter-intuitive, and sometimes logistically an incredible challenge, but the discipline of getting our kids to bed at 5:00 PM is the only piece of parenting advice I’ll ever give.  That’s 5:00 until they are in Kindergarten, then up 30 minutes each year.   Our third-grader goes to bed at 6:30 most nights (a bit of a peer to peer issue!).

We are not militant in this approach; there are sleepovers and evening activities mixed into our routine.  But as a normal course of action, our kids go to bed an hour or two before most of their peers.

For me, this is the toughest job as a parent. Bedtime can be such a nightmare!  There’s always something else to do before bed, including such important things as homework and brushing of teeth.  But apparently every 10 minutes count.

Turns out, there’s a growing body of research indicating that serious public health issues and education performance issues are highly correlated with the loss of sleep over the past few decades.  That’s right, ADHD, obesity, and lower academic performance are highly correlated with a significant downward trend in sleep.

There are significant developmental processes that occur in a child’s brain and body that depend on long, uninterrupted sleep.  And this developmental stage lasts through adolescence.

Yet, only 5 percent of high school students get 8 hours of sleep, with the average being 6.5 hours per night, according to studies by Dr. Frederick Danner at the University of Kentucky.  This loss can be traced to higher automobile accident rates and a recent movement to start school later to give kids a chance to sleep longer.

According to leading sleep scholars like Dr. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University loss of one hour of sleep is the equivalent to losing two years of cognitive maturation and development.  That means a slightly sleepy six-grader is performing in class like a fourth grader.

This is not an isolated finding, studies conducted by Brown University, Penn State, the University of Virginia, and the University of Minnesota all point to the same thing: loss of sleep has serious effects on children’s performance and health.

I know you want to see your kids at night, and I know they don’t seem that tired.  But when you are considering the best things you can do to help your kids succeed, or find yourself at school hearing about attention problems, or at the mall watching your fifth-grader behave like a 2 year old, perhaps you should reconsider your bedtimes.

Read more about this and other cool new insights about raising kids in Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

  • I’ve taken a similar approach (although not quite as early any more) and believe the sleep begets sleep notion completely. Until she was seven, my daughter slept from 7pm to 7am every night. If ever I missed the 6:30 to 7:00pm window, it was much more difficult for her to fall asleep. I had assumed she was one of those kids who needs their sleep, but I’m rethinking this based on your thoughts. It’s not easy now since I don’t get home from work until 7:00 or so and kids even in elementary school have so much homework every night. I’m still trying to get her as much sleep as possible. And yes, your wife is a genius!

  • John,

    Great post and new look to the blog. Your wife is indeed a genius, and I’m loving Nurture Shock (I’m calling it the Freakonomics of raising kids). We’ve struggled with this one and are on the “normal” side of the equation with our 4 year old going to bed between 8 and 9pm and are trying to wind back the clock as a good night’s sleep has a dramatic effect.

    Cheers,
    Rich

  • Grew up going to bed by 9pm even as a teenager. Love my ten hours a day.

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