Did you know that the average growing child needs between 10 and 11 hours of sleep per night?
I was shocked when I read this and as I mentally scrolled back to when I was raising my young children, I was horrified at how little attention I paid to this essential ingredient to having a happy, healthy child.
I ran into this as a teacher all the time - especially when I was working in South Central LA - where my students would routinely start acting up randomly. One day in exasperation, I asked a child why she was being so difficult. She burst into tears and said that she was so tired all the time because there was a gang hang-out downstairs from her and they were shooting guns all the time and she would be awake all night long. She even told me that she hated being "bad" but something just took over and she couldn't control herself.
I consulted with her mother and helped her get the family moved to a safer neighborhood and miraculously the bad behavior stopped.
I cannot push this point too strongly: I guarantee you that you are depriving your child of much needed rest especially over the holidays when schedules are thrown out and normal routines are just a fond memory.
Combine scheduling craziness with the inevitable floods of sweets laced with toxic preservatives, food colors and other chemicals that are everywhere this time of year and you have a perfect recipe for disaster. You are also setting your whole family up for illness as it has been proven that bad diet and sleep deprivation wreak havoc on the immune system and literally open the door to all kinds of disease.
OK, enough doom and gloom! Your child will be forever thankful to you if you take control and lay down some practical guidelines about sleep and food. First of all, work your schedules backwards so that your child will get 11 hours of sleep per night with no exceptions. We all respond best to a predictable routine so start yours today with the agreed-upon bedtime.
Now work this time back an hour (yes a whole hour) and this will be the time that you start winding things down so your child will relax. Set up some invariable activities during this hour like a high-protein bedtime snack, bath with time to play in the water so it's a pleasant activity, then teeth brushing, last pee of the evening and a big reward of a bedtime story or two while quietly snuggled up.
It is very important that the rest of the house respect this activity by turning off electronics and quietly doing other things like homework so the little one does not feel left out of all the fun.
Believe it or not, your older children will flourish with some nightly routine built into their lives too. There is no harm in saying that between 7 and 8pm it is "quiet time in the house" with no video games, TV or loud and exciting activities happening.
One family told me that when they started this routine they were totally surprised to see that their pre-teens also became "de-amped." Turns out they actually started going to sleep much earlier too and became almost civilized themselves as a result of getting plenty of rest.
You know your child better than anyone else and you will gradually discover the best ways to ease the transition from daily activity into sleep. Of course you will have some fabulous failures as well as some magnificent triumphs. But I promise you, if you take the time and care to get this basic need fulfilled, daily struggles with schedules and chores, homework and all the rest of life's difficulties will dissolve. This doesn't mean that you can never go off the routine and never violate the schedule. After all, that midnight church service for Christmas or sister's wedding reception or the late night plane flight to Disney World are the special moments that can also bring a family together, especially if you have built up a long time line of positive and healthy interactions together.