Wednesday 24 July 2019

David Coleman: 'Working with families for over 20 years, I can tell you the bedtime routine is anything but straightforward'

 

There are many and varied sleeping habits for families
There are many and varied sleeping habits for families
David Coleman

David Coleman

Sleep is a complicated business in many families. What appears, on the surface, to be a natural, instinctive, process is rarely straightforward.

So, as we start into 2019, I thought I'd describe some of the many and varied sleeping habits of families, based on 20 years of working with them. You might even be reassured that your family is just as normal as every other.

I'll start with an ideal scenario, that some families do achieve. At around 6.30pm, the bedtime routine for the young kids, starts. There might be bathtime, pyjamas, some cuddle time and then story time in bed. With a final kiss goodnight, the parent leaves the room, turning off the light and leaving the door open a crack so the hall light gives just enough reassurance. With one final check, ten minutes later, the parent can know that their little ones are happily asleep, or are almost there.

Scenarios like that rely on well-established routines, a clear and single-minded focus on bedtime, to the exclusion of other distractions (no older child interrupting looking for help with homework, no second parent arriving home in the middle to create excitement). It takes advantage of children's natural circadian rhythm and relies on the fact that the children have a core sense of security that allows them to let go of the day as they fall asleep.

But in the adjoining house…

The parents themselves are tired by seven o'clock, having been up for at least 12 hours and having had no time for themselves all day. The household chores are piling up and their children's bedtime is just one other task that needs to be achieved before the parent will limp - exhaustedly - to their own bed. So, bedtime doesn't feel like a warm and nurturing opportunity for parent-child bonding, it is a chore like any other. Their children probably pick up on that, perhaps adding to their resistance to going to bed, which in turn makes the task harder for the parent, confirming their belief that there is little joy about bedtime.

In the house across the road…

After summoning up the energy to be nice about the bedtime, and even getting to read their child a story, the parent tries to say goodnight and leave the room. As soon as they stir, their child grabs their arm and asks for one more story, or has to tell them something really important. If the parent can be patient enough, to wait, they discover that the "news" is never ending. By the time they do leave they are cross about the delaying tactics and they leave their child upset in the room. They are no sooner downstairs, thinking about a quick cup of tea before tackling the laundry, when their child appears at the top of stairs, tear-stained, and miserable. Back they all go to the bedroom, maybe repeating the scene a few times before the parent has had enough and just shouts to get back into bed "…or else".

In the house up the road where the new family just moved in…

Knowing that there is no way they'll get their child into bed without a struggle, the parent is already prepared to allow their child to sleep in the parental bed, at the first sign of distress. Everyone knows this, but they go through the charade of pretending that the child will be able to get to sleep on their own, in their own bed, in their own room. Once the protests start, they shift the child into their comfy double bed. In the comfort, and with the security of knowing that their parent will be joining them, they quickly fall soundly asleep. Which is when the parents, tired and frustrated launch into their near nightly row about "giving in to the child", and "well I wouldn't have to if you'd do something to help", followed by "I'm banished from my own bed…again!", leading to "well maybe that's no bad thing!". The row is never solution focused, it's just bitchy, annoyed and focused on points scoring.

In the house with the two big SUVs parked outside…

With five children, ranging in age from two to 16, the parents have given up on any kind of bedtime routine. They've discovered that their kids will fall asleep whenever they are ready, and so they just wait for them to crash out. They might prompt them to get to a bed before they fall asleep, but they are just as happy to carry them to a bed later.

In the house beside that…

The parents are very organised and do try to get a routine going every night. Most nights, they get the children to bed and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing the children settle. Some nights it takes ages, some nights it's a 20 minute breeze. But, like the rest of us they then have to finish the chores. When it's all done, they, like most of us, just want a bit of downtime, a bit of time to call their own. So, with a cup of tea, or a glass of wine they flop in front of the telly. Even though it's 11pm and they know they should go to bed themselves, they'd feel cheated without this little bit of leisure. At 2am they wake with a start, release the crick in their neck from sleeping on sofa, curse their lack of willpower, and crawl into bed…only to find junior has gotten there first. Oh well, there's always the spare room.

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