Friday night was a long one for my children. Two of their friends came for a sleepover, and with all four children snuggled into the big sofa bed together, there wasn’t a lot of sleep happening. In anticipation of her buddy coming over, my five-year old daughter announced that they would stay up until midnight. So when the kids weren’t looking, I changed the digital clocks on the microwave and the stove (which they could see from the living room) so that midnight would happen a couple of hours sooner. That worked pretty well, except that in the morning they all jumped out of bed at six thinking they’d slept until eight. Needless to say, the kids were zombies all day, and I dreaded bedtime.
One would think that it would be easier to put tired kids to bed. Not in our house. Exhaustion turns them into squirrels, and they become harder to settle down. On a typical night, there’s a tiny window between sleepy-time and hyper-time. Just when we think we’ve read enough calm, quiet soothing stories, or purposely droned through the last few pages of a chapter book to make them drowsy, someone will crack a joke or make a fart noise and all-out giggling ensues. Then it takes another thirty minutes to an hour of foot-rubbing, stuffed animal searches, cups of water, kisses, and bedtime tucking and re-tucking before they’re really asleep.
Siri Hustvedt writes about children and sleep in the NY Times “All-Nighters” column this week. I was struck by her description of sleep as a time when children experience separation both from parents and from wakefulness. No wonder so many kids stall at bedtime. Not only do we ask them to be alone in darkened rooms, where monsters must be hiding in the shadows, we want them to close their eyes and sleep. As someone who slept with a closet light on until I was almost ready to leave home for college (so I could find my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, of course), I try to be understanding of my children’s bedtime fears even when I’m desperate for some down time or to get to bed myself. We keep a little “nest” (a sleeping bag) that my son can pull out from under our bed if he’s had a nightmare and can’t go back to sleep in his own bed. Fortunately, he needs it infrequently, and although this practice probably goes against parenting expert advice, we alls have a better chance of getting back to sleep.
Why do we expect bedtimes to be easy for kids when we grown-ups have just as many hang-ups with sleep? My kids’ second wind is something I get too. If I’m really exhausted, the adrenalin kicks in and I have to force myself to settle down and not take on new projects at that crucial midnight point-of-no-return. Late nights, or worse, the 3AM wide-awake bouts, were a huge part of my graduate school life. I’d have all-night work sessions at the lab and then catch the bus home to bed once the sun came up. Perhaps because of those years of sleep abuse (or maybe it’s just parental instinct to listen for the kids), I still wake up in the night, unable to turn off my brain. An Ipod glow often emanates from under our covers in the middle of the night, as my husband or I search for just the right droning podcast to induce a return to sleep.
As I write this, my husband is getting the kids’ baths finished and preparing their bedtime snacks. They’ll soon be brushing their teeth, and then I’ll stop what I’m doing here to read stories. Having just read this week’s piece by Libby Gruner, I’m reminded to step back from my complaints about the bedtime battles and look at the big picture. It’s the process that’s worthwhile, even when it seems my kids will never settle down to sleep. After all, I treasure the reading and cuddle time, when we’re often most affectionate and expressive of our love. How much longer before bedtimes become just a quick good night, and no one wants to have feet rubbed anymore?