On any given day, somewhere close to 8 o’clock at night, you will find me and my husband sitting down to dinner with our four young kids, all under the age of 9. While some families have tucked their children into bed with forehead kisses and whispers of sweet dreams hours ago, our night is essentially just getting started.
After a home-cooked dinner, I will usually clean up the kitchen while my husband tackles the arduous task of getting four young kids cleaned up and ready for bed, all while trying to ensure that they don’t use up all the hot water before we have a chance to shower, too. (Enter the age of the long adolescent shower…) Most nights, all the kids are in bed by 9:30 pm and the older ones will stay up a little later to read for a while.
Over the years, I’ve suggested an earlier bedtime for our kids to my husband many times. But for whatever reason, it just hasn’t stuck. First, it was the fact that I worked as a nurse and wouldn’t get home until close to 8 pm, so he would keep the kids up so we could all eat together. After that, as I started a new business, the only time I could squeeze in was a few hours after he got home from work. And still after that, as we moved to a new farm property, there’s always work to be done outside before it gets too dark.
So, our later dinnertime and thus, later bedtime, has stuck around.
I have to be honest with you: I don’t always love our family habit of eating late and getting kids to bed later. First of all, eating that late and then going to bed right away doesn’t make sense, nor seem particularly healthy to me. Second of all, by the time we finish with stories and last-minute requests for water and “one more hug,” I am spent. I want nothing more than to retreat to my own bed, which doesn’t leave a lot of energy left to spend any time with my husband. But most of all, I feel a tremendous amount of guilt and worry about our “late” bedtime for our kids.
As American parents, we are inundated with the message that overall, we are all severely sleep-deprived and that kids need way more sleep than they get. And it’s not a terrible message; I am a firm believer in the importance of sleep. But in prioritizing other things that are important to us, like eating together as a family, I also have struggled with a lot of guilt that I am harming my children by not tucking them in bed at 7 pm on the dot. I’ve snapped at my husband at parties when he wanted to linger, said no to playdates because I didn’t want to mess up naptime, and been the bad guy when my kids begged for movie night.
In other words, I have allowed my stress over my kids’ sleep to get in the way of enjoying life.
And I’m wondering if it’s time to chill out a little about sleep. As it would turn out, Americans aren’t doing as badly as you would think. In one data pool collected on global sleep habits, for example, Americans fell sensibly and squarely in the middle when it came to kids’ bedtimes. According to a 2010 Sleep Medicine study on global sleep, the average American bedtime for children was 8:52 pm and again, it was about in the middle, compared to a 7:28 pm bedtime in New Zealand and a 10:17 pm bedtime in Hong Kong.
Most importantly however, is how the different type of sleep schedules affect kids as they grow. For instance, how do Italian children, with their infamously late eating habits (sometimes hanging out with their parents at a restaurant until 11 PM and choosing their own bedtimes) fare? How does the fact that Italian parents are, you know — enjoying life and not stressing about strict sleep schedules affect their children? Surely, it messes them up for good because sleep is king, right?
A 2005 study revealed that on the flip side, Italian adolescents, despite getting less sleep than their American counterparts, also reported better sleep hygiene than American teens. Of course, a lot of has changed since then — smartphones glued to our brains being one of them – and there are a lot of things Italians do differently, like shorter school days and of course, the daytime siesta. But still, the point is, it is possible to do sleep differently with kids and have them not only survive, but thrive.
So maybe I won’t be advocating to take our children out to eat on a school night at 10 o’clock anytime soon, but instead will relax a little and realize that every family does sleep a little differently. And who knows, maybe I’ll get really wild and say “yes” to my family’s next request for a late-night movie night.
As long as my husband gets up with them the next morning, of course. Because we all know that they’re still getting up no early, no matter how late they stay up.