In Spain, babies and children stay up until after 10 p.m., sometimes joining their parents and other families on a stroll around town in the evening. Contemporary foraging cultures (hunter-gatherers) like the !Kung in Botswana have no set schedule – both adults and children sleep when they are tired.
In the Philippines, toddlers often fall asleep in a hammock in the main living area and are carried to bed when their parents are ready to join them. In France, many children do their own thing until they put themselves to bed.
However, parents in predominantly English speaking countries like the US, the UK and Australia constantly hear about the importance of a routine and an early bedtime, even when the sun doesn’t go down until late. But this often becomes a struggle – it’s scary at night and children don’t want to be alone. Parents worry their babies and toddlers aren’t getting enough sleep, which leads to more stress – and less sleep.
Even some co-sleeping parents lie in the dark for hours waiting for their babies to fall asleep. But does it have to be this way? The authors of Sweet Sleep instead suggest front-loading – getting more work done earlier in the day so everyone can wind down earlier in the evening.
With front-loading, parents and kids brush teeth and slip into pajamas (or whatever routine you prefer), then relax in a dimly lit, childproof room, often on a floor bed. Parents can read (or read to each other), watch TV with closed captions, answer emails, snooze, listen to podcasts and so on while baby/toddler nurses or plays nearby and eventually falls asleep. With bedtime pressure off, everyone gets more rest.
A modified version can even work for school age kids. The expectation that the hour or two before sleep is reserved for reading and relaxing – together – can decrease battles over video games and other screen time before bed.
Front-loading looks different for different families. Some families may pile the dishes in the sink so the first one up in the morning can wash them. Other couples may work together to clean up, prep for the next day and get children ready for bed so everyone can wind down together afterwards. Single parents or those whose partners aren’t often available may need to find creative ways to cut back on chores, like pulling clean clothes out of baskets instead of folding them.
I remember many evenings lying in the dark nursing my oldest to sleep, feeling frustrated that I couldn’t be downstairs watching TV with my husband or getting a chore done. Some nights I was able to unlatch and ninja roll away, only to have her wake up after an hour or two, or sometimes only twenty minutes later.
Once we let go of a fixed bedtime, things became so much easier. We all got the rest we needed and everyone felt more relaxed. Of course, if an early bedtime works for your baby or toddler, that’s wonderful! If not, you may want to give front-loading a try.
Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family by La Leche League International
Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small
“Don’t Tell The Kids, But Bedtime Is A Social Construct” by Maggie Koerth-Baker, July 12, 2017, fivethirtyeight.com