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May 1 2018

Kids and Sleep: Are Americans Too Nervous?

by Julie Gunlock

“Hey, do you mind moving Jack’s first birthday party’s start time to 5:30pm, instead of 6pm? Our little Billy goes to bed at 6:30 and we’d really like to come.”

I was a new mom (if you can’t tell by my hosting a cocktail party for my first born’s first birthday--complete with charcuterie board, passed hors d'oeuvres, a house cocktail, loads of wine and beer, and one lone blue balloon standing sentry in a corner), so I didn’t know if her request was obnoxious or reasonable. Through gritted teeth and a fake smile firmly in place, I told her to come as early as she needed to. After all, no one wanted to disturb Billy. 

As the years rolled on, I often ran into this “bedtime” hard stop. Eventually I started setting party time earlier so that people with children could make it. But for some of our friends, the anxiety never stopped. Even as my children left the toddler stage, I’d notice parents getting antsy around 9ish…”Oh boy, look at the time, Sally’s just a monster the next day if he stays up too late.”

To this day, we don’t have a firm time for bed, but rather a, “hmmm, it seems late, I guess we should head upstairs” sort of nightly ritual.

That isn’t to say that I just let the the kids fall where they are and sleep until I rouse them at 2am to finally tuck them into their beds, but the time is always shifting by a half hour or so and of course there are times when they stay up far too late. And in the less stressful and scheduled summer months, I could be accused of legitimate neglect—letting the kids stay out until true darkness falls and then of course, they need a snack, meaning the bedtime routine doesn’t start until 10 and even later. 

This has been a constant source of guilt on my part, wondering why I’m not more like my friends who seem to have a better handle on bedtime. Multiple studies have shown the benefit of more and regular sleep patterns for kids and that good sleep habits equal healthier kids. In fact, I’ve written extensively on the connection between sleep and childhood obesity.

Yet, writer Suzanne Zuckerman has me wondering if I’m worrying a little too much and if I’ve become a bit of a (gasp!) nervous helicopter parent when it comes to sleep. Over at PureWow, Zuckerman writes about raising her kids in Rome: 

When it comes to American parenting, few triumphs feel as hard-won as helping your kids sleep through the night. And as any veteran sleep trainer knows, the key to a rested (and thus, sane) family is often an obscenely early bedtime. (If they’re not down by 8 p.m., Houston, we’ve got a problem.)

But in Italy, our attempts to impose order on the universe with pre-sunset tuck-ins are not only called into question, but they’re also met with a confused, “Ma stai scherzando?” (Are you kidding me?)

“Walk into any restaurant in Rome, from the ordinary to the elegant, at 10 p.m. and you will find children eating and talking at the table with adults,” writesJeannie Marshall, a Toronto native raising her son in Rome. “Around 11, some of them will be face down in their spaghetti or sprawled over their parents’ laps, sleeping while the adults linger over a bitter digestivo.”

And these digestivo-sipping parents aren’t a few glutton-for-punishment outliers who don’t have to get up for work in the morning — this is everybody.

The article goes on to explain that while American children sleep for longer periods, Italian children’s sleep quality is better (this reminds me of eating pasta in Italy-the servings were so small compared to American portions, but tasted so much better!). She also mentioned that in Italy, the daily afternoon siesta is still practiced by many children and adults, meaning naptime is still a thing for everyone. This combined with the fact that the Italian school day is shorter, means Italian children may not require as much sleep as American children. 

So, given my geography, perhaps it’s better that I have some rules and worry a bit about keeping my kids on a more regular sleep schedule. But I say take note of the Italians and remember that if occasionally you veer from your child’s bedtime routine, it’s not the end of the world for your little one. 

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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