Sleep. I feel like it’s one of the biggest mysteries of being a mom: Is my kid ever going to sleep through the night? Are they getting enough sleep? “WHY WON’T YOU JUST GO TO SLEEP??”
My son is nine, almost ten, and while we’re long past the days of nap schedules, I still worry about the quality of sleep he’s getting. There are mornings where he wakes up groggy, sleep still crusting in his little eyes and purple bags so prominent I could put a wallet in them. Chances are, he woke up too early or went to sleep too late, and we’re all going to pay for it at some point. Mainly because he turns into a real dick when he’s tired, and I get it. But as his mom, it’s my job to make sure that he’s getting as much rest as he can. It’s hard at this age though, because he’s always so busy. More importantly, he doesn’t want to go to sleep. (I know, I don’t get it either!)
When he was a baby, he was what some would call a “difficultwp_postssleeper. I swear, he just wanted to be awake all the time. I would give him a bath with that lavender baby soap and rub him down with lotion, swaddle him, nurse him and put him down. What felt like five minutes later, he’d be like, “I’m up bitch! Let’s party!wp_postsIf I got him down early, he’d be up early and would want to hang out and watch TV with me…at 6 a.m. First of all, he couldn’t hold up his own head! I was exhausted and worried that he wasn’t getting enough sleep.
One thing I knew for sure was that sleep training or “cry it out” weren’t for us. I’m not going to pass judgment on parents who use those methods, but I have my own reasons for not wanting to. I couldn’t bear the thought of making him cry because he needed and wanted comfort to sleep. Both things felt like they would be more for me than him, because I was going against his natural body rhythms to make him conform to my beliefs of what I thought his sleep schedule needed to be.
“Some babies just do things their own way,wp_postspeople would tell me.
As annoying as it was, I had a baby (and toddler) who was more nocturnal than would be ideal. Some of that had to do with our lifestyle at the time. I was working afternoons/evenings, and he came with me, so we would get home around what would normally be bedtime. He was too stimulated to take a nap at a “normalwp_poststime, so he took a late nap, which led to a later bedtime. Was it ideal? Absolutely fucking not. But it was what it was. According to my mom, I was also a toddler who liked being up late. (I’m still that way, I’d prefer to stay up late than get up early.) So maybe there was something genetic to it as well. When it comes to kids, nothing lasts forever, so I knew this was a wave I’d just have to ride until we came out on the other side.
When I stopped nursing him to sleep, we had to create a new routine. He still slept in bed with me (it was just the two of us) and he still needed the closeness of nursing without the actual act. I used to fall asleep to music every night, so I thought that might be a good thing to try with him. We found a playlist on Spotify with piano ballads and every night after lights out, I would put his music on, and he would drift off to sleep. He doesn’t like a completely dark room because there was always a dim light on when he was a baby, so I would lay next to him and play games on my phone. The glow from my phone mimicked the dim light, and was comforting for him. This change in routine also coincided with his starting preschool, and school definitely changes your kid’s relationship with sleep.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine created sleep guidelines for kids, which has been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. For school aged kids, they recommend 9-12 hours of sleep a night. We’re lucky enough to live close to his school, which means he can sleep until 7 a.m. and still get to school on time. Because I worked from home, I’d pick him up at 3:15, we’d have dinner early, and usually he was in bed no later than 8 p.m. It was a good routine, but then the pandemic came in and totally messed everything up.
Once he was home all the time, sleep felt like a punishment. “Why do I need to go to sleep?wp_postshe’d whine. It wasn’t like he was doing much of anything a lot of the time, so by his logic, he didn’t need to sleep. He wasn’t expending enough energy to support my claims of sleep being restorative. Much like we adults were feeling, he felt like sleep was just a thing that happened between the monotony of one day to the next. I worried about his sleep habits; he often took a long time to fall asleep (sometimes over 45 minutes) and woke early. He was prone to meltdowns midday or in the evening because he wasn’t getting enough sleep, but bedtime was still such a fight. I shared about our struggles on Facebook and found other parents were struggling too, which was comforting.
A study released in 2022, showed that the pandemic absolutely fucked with the sleep of all kids, not just mine. Before the pandemic, around 25% of kids had trouble sleeping. During the pandemic, that amount nearly doubled; 46% of kids were having trouble sleeping, which the study noted was “alarming.wp_postsMuch of it was attributed to the way the pandemic messed with kids’ routines — spending more time on screens for school or socializing, spending less time moving their bodies, and the way that the long expanses of idle time messed with their schedules. Things got better for us once he was able to go to the playground with some regularity, but the 18 months he wasn’t in regular school were LONG. I found myself missing getting up at 7 a.m. and fighting with him to get ready for school.
Last year, he started an afterschool music program, which changed our routine yet again. Several days a week, he doesn’t get home until after 6 p.m., and I try to have his dinner waiting, but he still needs time to decompress from the school day. For him, that means he’s watching YouTube or playing Minecraft on his tablet. Then it’s time for homework and a bath before I try to get him in bed no later than 9 p.m. Sometimes we’re more successful than others. Because homework may take longer, or I didn’t get dinner made in time, or we both lose track of time while he’s in the bath. Or maybe he needs a little more decompression time or wants to show us the new song he’s learning on his cello or he needs some mom time. It’s hard when you’re fighting against a racing clock to make sure he’s getting enough sleep.
If you’re a parent, you know how hard it is to get a kid to go to sleep when they don’t want to. I truly wish I could tell you it gets easier, but I don’t like to lie. There are days when bedtime is a breeze: I announce it’s time and the boy starts the routine without complaint. Unfortunately, that is not the norm. Most days, there’s whining, huffing and me screaming about him dawdling in the bathroom to avoid having to go to sleep. He really thinks I don’t know how long it should take to brush his teeth. The weekends are especially tough, because I give him a little more leeway with what time he goes to bed. I don’t get crazy, I let him stay up for like an extra half hour or something. He’s very rarely in bed after 9pm unless we were doing something special. I told you, he turns into a dick once he’s been up too long past his bedtime. Then everything is so much harder.
Every kid is different, but there are some things that experts (and me) can agree on to create less of a battle at bedtime.
- A routine is important. My kiddo knows that when it’s time for bed, he has to brush teeth, put on pjs, feed his guinea pigs, say goodnight to everyone and then get in bed. We put on his night light, I tuck him in and put on his nighttime music. (Right now he’s listening to cello music) When he was younger, I would read a bedtime story, but now he’s over that. On the occasions he has a babysitter, he can do the routine without any assistance.
- Screens off 30 minutes before bed. I noticed during the pandemic that if he was on his electronics until bedtime, it took longer for him to wind down and fall asleep. And then he woke up earlier because he was eager to get back to his game. Now he knows that his tablet or Switch goes off 30 minutes before bed on non homework nights. He can play with toys or watch TV with us until it’s time for bed if he’s not taking a bath that night.
- Physical activity (if you can). Kids have a lot of energy to burn, and if they don’t burn enough of it during the day, it’s harder for them to wind their mind and body down for bedtime. An hour or so before bedtime, have them do some sort of physical activity that will expend that energy and help them sleep. I don’t allow my kid to do his Power Ranger moves too close to bedtime because he gets hyped, but maybe taking a walk or if your kid is into yoga, they can do a few moves before bed. Fresh air also does the trick, I’ve found.
- No sugar too close to bed. After a certain point in the night, I make my kid switch to drinking water and don’t allow sugary snacks. Fruit or veggies are okay, as well as chips or pretzels. A full belly helps kids sleep better, so a light snack 30 minutes before it’s time to brush teeth can be helpful!
What have you noticed about your kids and sleep? How do you get through the bedtime battle?
Queer Mom Chronicles is a monthly column where I examine all of the many facets of queer parenthood through my tired mom eyes.