Talk of earlier bedtimes for teens calls to mind my own experiences with an early bedtime, which didn’t work out so well. Rather than helping me get more sleep, it set me up to become a card-carrying insomniac. Let me explain.
By age 12 or 13, I didn’t need as much sleep as my younger sister, but my parents insisted on a 10:30 bedtime for both of us. So dutifully I crawled under the covers. But I wasn’t the least bit sleepy. Bedtime was when my evening program began. These were the main activities:
- Reading. Mom’s or Dad’s retreating footsteps was the all-clear signal that meant I could turn on the wall lamp beside my bed and grab a book from my bedside table. Nancy Drew gave way over the years to biographies and books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984.
- Reviewing the day to try to make sense of experiences I had trouble understanding.
- Planning tricks to play on my sister. The two of us went through a phase where the aim was to scare the other, for a laugh.
Eventually I fell asleep.
A Different Bedtime Story
If my nights awake in bed don’t sound disagreeable, they weren’t. Until I went to college. Then, the reading and thinking I did in bed gave way to another bedtime program that wasn’t nearly so nice:
- Cramming for tests with books and notes strewn over the bed.
- Stressing out over piano performances I wasn’t quite prepared for.
- Mentally rehashing arguments with my roommate.
These were the years in which sleep got harder and harder. And trying to sleep only made things worse.
Insomnia: A Theory
Engaging in non-sleep activities in bed is a contributing factor in insomnia, the experts say. If you read, study, watch TV or do work in bed, so the thinking goes, you come to associate the bed with wakefulness rather than sleep.
Count me as a true believer. Getting in bed when you’re wide awake leads to doing things and to rumination. If you’re prone to insomnia, this is a set-up for lousy nights. In my case, a pattern set in motion by to a too-early bedtime doubtless made my sleep problem worse.
In the future, scientists may establish evidence-based guidelines for the amount of sleep kids need, but the idea of setting sleep norms makes me nervous. When it comes how much sleep we need, we’re all different, and that includes kids. There’s no magic number of hours all kids need to function best.
A Flexible Approach
Parents should be the arbiters of the right bedtime for young children, who have no clue that their crankiness has anything to do with lack of sleep. But at some point in their growing up, maybe adolescence, parents should tune in to their kids’ natural sleep proclivities and adjust their bedtime accordingly. Yes, help them choose appropriate wind-down activities in the hour leading up to bedtime: a shower in the evening rather than the morning, a book rather than Facebook. Yet keep those wind-down activities away from the bed.
Only when the yawning and drooping eyelids begin is it time, finally, to slip under the covers and turn the lights out.
What bedtime habits did you have during childhood, and were they conducive to sleep or not?