THE GROUP: Getting Kids to Sleep at Night So They Don’t Nod Off in Class

Today The Answer Sheet’s group of moms--and a dad--discusses sleep issues. Please relate your own experiences in the comments section. Email The Sheet with issues you’d like us to address, and let us know if you want to join The Group.

This Week’s Members:
Charlotte Osborn-Bensaada is a legislative librarian with one child in a D.C. public school public and a 3-year-old starting in a program at a charter school.
Peg Willingham works for a non-profit health research organization and she lives in Virginia, where her daughter attends a public high school.
Linda McGhee is a psychologist, school counselor and professor, who lives in the District and works in Bethesda. Her son is in fifth grade in a Maryland private school.
Jamie Shor founded and operates the PR Collaborative in the District. She lives in Montgomery County, where her son is in elementary school and her daughter is in middle school.
Valerie Strauss is The Answer Sheet.
Special guest: Jim Yong Kim, new president of Dartmouth University President and father of a 7-month-old and a 9-year-old 4th grader.

GOOD TO KNOW: The National Sleep Foundation says that the amount of sleep each person needs every night varies from individual to individual but provides these general recommendations:

Toddlers (1-3 years old)--10 to 12 hours
Preschoolers (3-5 years old)--11 to 13 hours
School age Children (ages 5-12)-- 10 to 11 hours
Teens (11-18)-- 8.5-9.25 hours
Adults 7-9 hours

The Discussion: Do you think your kids get enough sleep, and if not, how much does it affect them at school. When do you put your kids to bed? How much sleep do they get?

My short answer is that I have a set bedtime (8 p.m.) during the school week, slightly more relaxed on weekends.

But I don’t think bedtime equals sleep time. Do you guys have any advice on how to get a night owl to actually go to sleep?

My very short answer is ... no!

I feel guilty about it, yet also bizarrely powerless about it. My 9th grade daughter usually gets fewer than 9 hours of sleep on a school night and I am sure that is not enough.

By the time dinner is over in our house, it seems like there is very little time left for finishing up homework, getting ready for bed, etc, let alone frivolities like watching "American Idol" or computer or just talking.

Next thing we know, it’s almost 10 p.m. and we are braying "It’s bedtime! Hurry up! It’s late!" and then it’s very hard to wake her up in the morning, and every morning I vow that she should go to bed earlier, but it just doesn’t happen. I suspect she is tired in school, although we have never gotten any concrete feedback from school about that.

Sleep is what I call my parental failing. I swear we will start better every school year-- but we are starting third grade and ..... . I cannot seem to manage to get home, have dinner, review homework, spend 30 minutes reading to my children and get them to bed before 10 pm.

Of course by that point I have missed the magic point that they are tired and now they are wired and tired. Plus this is on a normal night, not even a night we have school event or some other intervening event. Those nights I don’t even like to think about.

My daughter even asked when she gets to have caffeine in the morning like I do.

I am sure it does affect school. I know it makes her more sensitive to issues with classmates. I just keep swearing to do better. It sort of feels like losing weight: A couple of good days, then you fall off and have another late night.

Ideally I would hope that I could get my kids 10 hours of sleep, but right now that feels almost impossible. We are more often than not getting 8 1/2 to 9.

My 10-year-old has two speeds--“stop and go”--and there is nothing in between. He is active until I put him to bed and then is asleep, soundly in about five seconds

My 13 year old is at that age where she equates staying up late with being treated as a grown up. Unfortunately, she fights for every moment to stay up and then has a hard time transitioning into a sound sleep.

I never think she gets enough sleep and while I have not seen it impact her schoolwork, it certainly impacts her mood. We can always tell when we have truly crossed the line into not enough sleep by her attitude towards her parents.

I’ve never known how to get somebody to go to sleep when they weren’t especially tired either--especially teenagers. We know that they have different body rhythms and I don't know how to fight science. I did find a book that I hoped would help--"Snooze... Or Lose! 10 ‘No-War’ Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits,” by Helene A. Emsellem with Carol Whiteley."
The tips seem helpful for all ages. Here are some of them. Tell me whether you think they might help.

*Make sure your child’s room is calm, comfortable and cozy.
*Limit the use of TVs, phones, computers. Pick a time every night that your child signs off the computer and stops talking to friends.
*Urge your child not to eat foods that can prevent sleep after 4 p.m., including those with caffeine and chocolate. Don’t let your child skip dinner.
*Establish bedtime and wake-up routines. Limit the things that must be done in the morning before you have to leave the house, such as organizing backpacks the night before.
*Light tells the brain it is daytime. After a certain time at night, have our child use a reading light or another light that is not coming from overhead. If your child is a teenager, have them wear sunglasses after 10 p.m. In the morning, pull up the shades and turn on some lights.
*Don’t let your child take long naps after school, and not at all late in the day.
*Make sure your child is exercising regularly.

How do those sound?

The lights on/off is a key issue at our house. So, I guess now is the time for transition to lamp/nightlight. Thanks for the tip.

The challenge of this list is that it is an organized person's list, and sometimes I don't feel like I have that much control in my own life. I know that sounds like a cop-out but it does spill out. Sleep is probably the most common loss, but non-fast food dinners is another.

I don’t know if the tips will work on my daughter, but I can use a few!

It may make you feel better to know that other high accomplished people have trouble getting their kids to sleep on time too. I interviewed the new president of Dartmouth College, Jim Yong Kim, who is a world leader in the field of public health. When I told him about our discussion, he laughed and told a familiar story.


We have a 7-month-old and a 9-year-old in fourth grade. Usually he gets to bed on time but there are nights when he stays up too late. We try to get him to sleep and find that he will read a book under the covers.

When we are more disciplined and get into a routine he goes to bed by 9 and that is much better for everybody. He has to be on the school bus by 7:35.

It just doesn’t always happen the way it should.

Readers: Please continue this discussion....

By Valerie Strauss  |  September 17, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  The Group  | Tags: being tired in school, sleep issues Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Previous: Sniper's Execution Set;Talking to Your Kids About Capital Punishment
Next: More on Grades: A Case Study in Change


Our kids are 3 and 6. The evening routine starts with dinner and continues through cleanup, a half an hour or so of play (outdoors if possible), bath, pajamas, brushing, reading, prayers and good night. I (the dad) lead them through this routine, which is more time consuming than most parents I know. All "my" stuff waits until they are asleep.

My kids sleep pretty well (about 11 hours) after being terrible sleepers as infants. I look forward to giving them more responsibility as they get older. We don't have the homework monster yet and they don't consider the possibility of watching TV or getting on the computer after dinner. Like I said, they're young.

Posted by: KS100H | September 17, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

My daughter is a couple months shy of 2 1/2. She is in bed regularly around 8, usually asleep by 9 (she takes a while to wind down, even with a calm 30 mins before bedtime). Our problem is her wake up time, which is often at 5am. We think she wakes up at the end of a sleep cycle, but the fact that she doesn't sleep until 6 or later is hard on us. We get up each time and take her back to her room and ask her to stay in her room and either play or go back to sleep, but this isn't changing her sleep pattern and her very early rising and coming to wake us up.
This may just be her natural circadian rhythms, but we're looking for any suggestions some might have to help her sleep a bit longer (and get that minimum 10 hours of sleep).

Posted by: fuglycasanova | September 17, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Our kids are 2 and 4 1/2 and my husband and I just established a new routine. Despite the fact that our kids are young, we too could not find enough time in the day to get everything done. Similar to the tips provided earlier, we do a lot of preparations the night before - lunches, clothes, bags, etc. We do all of this after the kids have gone to bed around 9:30pm. I also do a little house cleaning and prep work for next day's dinner. Needless to say I am up every night until 11:30pm but it is worth it. These few changes have helped a lot!

Posted by: NatJBest | September 17, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

5 AM wakeups? Yeah, I kind of remember that from those hazy infant/toddler years. I believe all children are different and may need their own plan for sleep. Our nurse told us that almost no kids have sleep problems; just their parents!

Our oldest used to get up very early. When he was three we put a timer on a nightlight and told him he could wake up but had to stay in his room until the light came on. This actually worked.

I can only say not to get too hung up on any philosophy that is not working for your family - keep trying trying until you find the shoe that fits.

Posted by: KS100H | September 17, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

We're big fans of routine at my house too. And if you're not sleepy, fine, you can play in your room, but it has to be quiet play in bed--a book, a puzzle--by nightlight. The protests lapse into snores pretty soon.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | September 18, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Another thing for teens is to have them oput their cell phones in the kitchen before they go to bed. You would be surprised how many students over the years I've talked to that put their phones under their pillow on vibrate and then text their friends in the middle of the night.

Posted by: Rob63 | September 19, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

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