Ever been in this situation: you are enjoying some much-needed afternoon peace and quiet and can’t quite bring yourself to wake up your three year old from her nap? You let her go a bit longer than usual and later when bed time rolls around, your child is too wired to close her eyes? Or this one: you are driving home from a short jaunt to the grocery store and your child nods off in the car seat for 5 minutes, causing them to pass up their afternoon nap and denying you your chill time?
Knowing your kid’s ideal sleep schedule and actively sticking to it is one of the often overlooked aspects of parenting. If you allow your child to sleep willy-nilly whenever their eyelids get droopy, you will continually find your child out of sync with the family’s master schedule. In this article, I’ll share a few tips I’ve learned in 12 years of conducting home research on the sleeping habits of children.
Let’s start with the First and Most Important Rule of Sleep Management: you can always force a child to wake up but you cannot force a child to go to sleep.
The Second Law: little kids tend to doze off when they are bored or in a car seat.
Think of each day with your child like a cross-country airplane flight. Your child takes off in the morning when they wake up and lands in the evening at bedtime. Some kids need two refueling layovers (read: naps) to make it their final destination, others need only one and still others zero. The goal is to achieve the perfect flight for you and your child so that the plane runs out of gas just as the landing gear hits the runway at the final destination exactly at bedtime. As every parent knows, the perfect flight doesn’t happen very often but their are things you can do to make the daily flight as perfect and enjoyable as possible.
The first thing is to know how much your child needs to make it comfortably through the day (this will likely diminish the older they get). The second thing is to know what times of day they are most vulnerable to taking an unscheduled snooze. Armed with that information, it is your job to wake your kid up when they have gotten enough sleep and keep them active when they might doze off. The first part is difficult because waking your child up means denying yourself a little extra chill time, and the second is difficult because you might find yourself struggling to keep a tired child awake in his car seat while you are trying to drive. I hate trying to keep kids awake during car rides and the only way to do it is to watch them in the rearview mirror and keep them engaged in conversation while you watch the road.
Here’s how it works for my three year old, the youngest of four children. Because of my wife’s work schedule, we keep our little guy up until 10 p.m. and allow him to sleep to 9 a.m. in the morning. He doesn’t take an afternoon nap and hasn’t for some time. He shares a room with his 8-year-old brother so getting to bed on time is important so that the eight year old isn’t kept awake until near midnight on a school night. We know from painful experience that if the three year old dozes off in the car or in front of the television for more than five minutes, there is a high likelihood that his bed time will shift from the usual 10 p.m. back to 11:30 p.m. or later.
We know that our three year old is vulnerable to falling asleep at dinner time or during car rides. As a result, once 3:30 rolls around, we have to monitor him closely and keep him active, get himself outside. Once he hits 6:30 or so, it is lively enough around the house that he is not likely to fall asleep. If we do it right, our three year old will stick to the routine and be ready to sleep the night at the same time as his three older siblings. That way, my wife and I will be able to enjoy a few extra hours together in the late evening and go to bed as happy, contented parents.