Put Your Kids to Bed, Even if the Sun Is Still Shining

CC BY 2.0. NNelumba

Early bedtimes are a powerful tool for better physical health, emotional stability, and behaviour. So why don't more parents take advantage of it, and enjoy some alone time in the process?

Five o’clock is busy hour in my household. That’s when we shift gears from playing outside or hanging around the house to our nightly bedtime assembly line. Three little kids have to get fed, cleaned up, read to, and tucked into bed no later than 7 p.m., sometimes even 6:30 p.m., depending on how far into the school week we are.

If you’re reeling in shock, let me assure you that, yes, you read that time correctly. Seven o’clock, when it’s still bright outside, with several hours of sunlight still left in this part of Ontario, when most kids are still awake and playing – that’s when mine go to bed.

I am that parent who refuses to budge when it comes to bedtime. My husband and I haul them away from barbecues and visits with friends, from dinner parties we’re hosting, from practicing their bike-riding in the park. We choose not to enroll them in extra-curricular activities that would interfere with bedtime.

Most parents think I am crazy to be so obsessed with early bedtimes and for enforcing it so strictly. I've even been called some nasty names. I can count on one hand the number of times the kids have gone to bed after 8 p.m. since being born. We just don’t do it. Ever.

Why? Because we believe it’s one of the most important things in their lives.

Just like good nutrition and unconditional love, adequate sleep is crucial for wellbeing, both physical and mental. I witness the emotional meltdowns, the crying, the tantrums, the refusal to cooperate, to eat properly, to use good manners, to persist at difficult tasks, whenever sleep becomes compromised. Especially at this time of year, when sunny days start early and are brimming with school activities and the kids come home absolutely exhausted and over-stimulated, it’s more important than ever to get them in bed promptly – outdoor sunlight notwithstanding.

In an excellent article for Slate called “In Defense of Absurdly Early Bedtimes,” Melinda Wenner Moyer describes some of the benefits of early bedtimes. One is longer duration of sleep. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the earlier you put your child to sleep, the longer he or she will sleep:

“It’s more complicated than assuming that kids who go to bed 20 minutes earlier fall asleep 20 minutes earlier—and thus get 20 additional minutes of sleep. Paradoxically, multiple studies have found that kids who go to bed later take longer to fall asleep than kids who go to sleep earlier; they also wake up more frequently in the middle of the night, then don’t sleep late enough to make up for their deficit.”

Early bedtimes allow children to get the crucial higher-quality sleep that happens earlier in the night:

“The sleep that happens earlier in the night tends to be more than sleep that takes place later at night and in the early morning. So putting your kid to bed early may ensure that a higher proportion of her sleep is the extra-restful kind.”

Adequate sleep results in better-behaved children. Wenner Moyer cites a study in which researchers found:

“Four nights of going to sleep an hour earlier made 8- to 12-year-olds more even-keeled and boosted their short-term memory, working memory, and attention skills compared with kids who had their bedtimes shifted later by an hour. Two-year-olds who had early bedtimes were, at age 8, 62 percent less likely than those with later or inconsistent bedtimes to have attention problems and 81 percent less likely to have aggression issues.”

Wow. Considering the high number of kids who are medicated in the United States for behavioral, attention, and aggression disorders, perhaps good old sleep should be given more credit for its calming powers. Indeed, Dr. Leonard Sax says the same thing in his book, The Collapse of Parenting. From my January review of that book:

“The symptoms of true ADHD mimic those of sleep deprivation perfectly, which is another huge problem in American society. Children do not sleep enough because they are over-scheduled and allowed to spend far too much time in front of screens, often late at night alone in their bedrooms.”

While I understand that it’s impossible for many families to get their kids to bed that early, due to work schedules, even a little 15- or 20-minute shift can make a difference. Do what you can and reap the rewards as an entire family. Kids will be more pleasant and controllable; parents will have luxurious time to themselves.