There’s a common theme on respectful parenting posts about sleep. It’s the belief that anyone who doesn’t control bedtime and claims that their kids actually do choose to go to bed must have “unicorn kids”. Comment after comment reads something like “My kids would stay up all night if I let them!” Really? Would they? Because that actually goes against their biology. There would certainly be an adjustment period if they’ve never had the choice before but I struggle to believe that they would endlessly stay awake.
I had a strict bedtime when I was a kid. I was sent to bed first because I was the youngest. We lived in an old house. Our bedroom was down two sets of stairs not only out of sight of my parents bedroom and the living area, it was out of ear shot too. I used to sit on the stairs and wait for my sister, too scared to go down the dark stairs to our bedroom alone. Being forced to bed at the same time each night didn’t teach me lifelong sleep skills. I still struggle to fall asleep and wake frequently for various reasons. And I still have an irrational fear of the dark. I’m not the only adult who has trouble sleeping. Inadequate sleep is very common, affecting 33-45% of Australian adults.
“I can’t help noting that no cultures in the world that I have ever heard of make such a fuss about children’s bedtimes, and no cultures have so many adults who find it so hard either to go to sleep or wake up. Could these social facts be connected? I strongly suspect they are.” John Holt
From the moment our babies were born we’ve followed our instincts which means following their lead. They have no bedtime. They choose when they want to go to bed. They usually fall asleep between 8 and 9pm and wake up between 7 and 8am. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later. I know a lot of respectfully parented kids, like adults, they all have different sleep cycles. Some go to bed early, some late. All sleep.
When my kids go to sleep is variable and determined by a number of factors. What time they woke up, how long and well they slept the night before, how busy their day was, if they had a day nap, how busy they are with a task. Whether it’s riding their bikes in the cool night air after a hot day or chasing each other around the kitchen or playing their favourite game, some of their most beautiful moments of play happen at “bedtime”. Once at 9pm they were giggling and playing together so beautifully, I thought, what a shame it would be to decide for them that they need to stop and sleep. I imagine if I had tried there would have been tears and feelings of anger towards me for interrupting their play. There would be frustration from all of us as they lay in bed wide awake unable to sleep. They know when they are tired. That night they finished building their fort, played in it and then at 9:30pm they decided they were ready for bed. They were asleep within minutes because they were ready to sleep. They are not unicorn kids. They are human beings who sleep when they are tired.
“The role of parents is not to train a child to sleep. It is to provide the child with a feeling of safety so that sleep naturally ensues.” Meghan Leahy
The tricky part is the occasional later nights, when we are ready to sleep before they are. There’s that difficult period when they are dropping their last nap. It happened at age 2 for our daughter, right when we had a newborn. It’s happening now for our son. Some days they just don’t make it to the evening. If they fall asleep at 4 or 5pm, then you know it’s going to be a late night. In the past this is when I have doubted gentle parenting. Not doubted that it works, it’s not about it working. I doubted that we were capable of it when I found myself putting my own needs before theirs. I distinctly recall one night yelling so loudly it scared me “GO TO BED!” Our worst parenting moments seem to be the ones that are etched so distinctly in our minds. But they are memories to learn from. I’ve also said on more than one occasion: “If you don’t go to bed now, tomorrow we won’t…” It was not only manipulative, it was counterproductive. Those nights we found ourselves laying for hours rubbing backs to no avail. Not only does it not work, it goes against our instincts that tell us everyone deserves bodily autonomy.
“…children seem to have a remarkable capacity for self-regulation. Unless, that is, we try to run their bodies for them” Alfie Kohn
Now, if they are not ready to sleep when we are, we talk to them about it. By communicating our needs they are learning how to listen to their own. “I feel tired, my body is telling me I need to sleep.” Sometimes they are so immersed in play that they don’t want to stop. They don’t want cuddles, they don’t want to read books, they are too busy. In that case we ask them to quietly play off the bed so we can rest. Sometimes they happily take on this suggestion, other times it feels as if our needs are not being heard. I have pleaded out of frustration “Let me sleep!” But I’ve learnt that it’s not me that isn’t being heard. When they are persistently jumping on the bed, climbing over me and I’m getting an overwhelming “touched out” feeling they are not out to annoy me, they are seeking connection. It seems so obvious, but in the moment, when you’re feeling tired and cranky and have spent much of the day connecting with them, it’s hard to see it.
Ironically, by meeting their need for connection I’ve found that my own needs are met far sooner. They can go from excited and energetic to asleep in 5 minutes if I just take the time to connect with them. They love to wrestle with me or be tickled. Laughing together instantly shifts our mood. Then they feel ready to settle, we talk about our day and read books. Before long they’ll cuddle in and say “I want to sleep now, Mama.”
One late night often has a flow on effect. Just a few days ago Mr 3 had a long late nap. He slept from 5 to 8pm and didn’t get back to bed until 11pm. Miss 5 rarely goes to bed before him so she was up late too. As is typical, the next two nights were late as well. It’s challenging but it naturally shifts back. Last night, Mr 3 was asleep at 8pm and Miss 5 at 9pm.
There are many who say “we can’t just let them go to bed at any time, I have to get to work” or “they have to go to school”. Choosing unschooling means we have much more freedom and flexibility but we do still make commitments. If we have plans for early in the morning we talk about it. They are perfectly capable of making wise sleep choices. Depending on our plans I might say “I’m worried that I’m going to be too tired to drive for an hour if I don’t go to sleep soon.” They want to see their friends and need me to drive them so we choose together to go to bed.
We talk about how much sleep our bodies need. I might say “I’m worried you won’t get enough sleep and will be tired tomorrow.” It’s a valid concern but is not absolute. After all, it is their body, not mine. The only way they will know that my concern is valid is by testing it out. Both before and after having kids I have, countless times, chosen to stay up later than I should have, only to regret it the next day. Why are so many parents so afraid of kids experiencing this too? I think the answer is that they don’t want to deal with the consequences. Tired humans, young or old, are generally not much fun.
But is it really fair on them? They will have to learn to self-regulate at some point. Will that be easier as an adult? It wasn’t for me. If they go to bed late and have to wake up early, yes, they will be tired. But their body clock will naturally shift, just like yours does, if it is given the chance. The key for us is being flexible and trusting them to listen to their bodies.