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When Is It Worth Torpedoing Eat/Wake/Sleep Routine?

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

Things are fairly regimented around our household. Dinner is usually on the table at about the same time every night, and bedtime – even on the weekends – is fairly consistent: the little one is down by 7 p.m. or so, and the big one is in bed an hour or so later. We’re up at 7 a.m., and the little one naps for about 2 hours every day at about 1 p.m. It's fantastic.

But the holidays – and the attendant travel and social obligations -- throw a huge wrench in the whole process. And so we face the same issue that all parents face when the routines are threatened: Do you stand firm by your schedules to minimize the chance that the kids will spend their break glassy-eyed and cranky, or do you just let life happen and pick up the pieces where you can?

Over our years of parenting, we’ve moved more and more toward the latter. We’ve decided not to deprive Grammy of a couple extra hours of time with the grandkids. Nor do we make dinner reservations at 5 p.m. or cut playtime with the cousins off when the clock strikes seven. We accept the consequences: We’re well aware we may pay for our permissiveness the next day, but the pain seems worth it. After all, how many opportunities do you get to reconnect?

But we found on our holiday tour of the United States (the better part of three weeks in various guest bedrooms in November in December) that plenty of the parents we know are still fighting to keep the schedules constant. They’re disrupting their social lives, reordering their priorities and completely tying themselves in knots to make sure that the kids are awake, asleep and fed exactly when they should be.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the approach, which just about every sleep book says is vital to setting healthy routines. But like everything else in life, there is a place for moderation when it comes to adherence to routine. A wildly fluctuating bedtime over weeks or months is a recipe for disaster. But a couple of days of late nights or skipped naps won’t kill anyone, and it does make the holidays that much more jolly.

I’m curious how you all deal with routines: Are there some daily habits that are absolutely inviolable, or can you make exceptions without permanently screwing up the daily cycle?

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at

By Brian Reid |  January 8, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Babies , Preschoolers
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Each child is an individual.

Posted by: jezebel3 | January 8, 2009 7:12 AM | Report abuse

I think I qualify as a slacker mom in this category. My kids have a well established bedtime routine during the week and are usually in bed by 8:00, but we have been known to play board games later than that, and on weekends, if we get together with friends, they certainly may go to bed later, or not in their own beds. Last weekend we were at a friend's house, and the adults were playing Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride (my new favorite), and we put sleeping bags in the living room for the kids to sack out. Which they did.

When life is too much, roll with it, baby. That's our motto around the holidays.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | January 8, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

We strive for a happy medium. Normally, we'll make every effort to make sure our daughter gets a nap (even if it's in the car) and has a reasonably consistent bedtime. However, there are times when we're willing to be flexible, as when my MIL wanted DD to attend "midnight" mass on Christmas eve (it's actually 9:30 pm).

I think our general rule of thumb is that the situation or occasion has to be pretty special to merit a significant deviation from the schedule. Special family circumstances merit deviation. Our recent vacation did not. After all, what good is it to be in a great place if the child is cranky and sleep-deprived?

Posted by: newsahm | January 8, 2009 8:09 AM | Report abuse

I gotta agree with Jezebel. It's almost invariably a mistake to assume that, because something works for you, it would work for other families as well if they'd just give it a shot. We've been on both sides of this; sometimes the kids are at a stage where they can go with the flow, other times even an extra 15 minutes will turn one of them into a shrieking unrecognizable alien creature. Now that they're getting older, they can take to variations much better. But the longer the trip, the more we hew to the schedule; the consistency seems to make them feel more secure and comfortable in a strange place. Three weeks in different guest rooms? I'm impressed y'all didn't all kill each other by the end of that!

One thing we don't compromise on, however, is the 5 PM dinner reservations. That's not about my kids' routines -- it's about getting potentially annoying small ones in and out before the grownups out for a kid-free evening arrive.

Posted by: laura33 | January 8, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

We do a little of both. During the school breaks, it is fine for the kids to go off schedule. But relatives have to recognize if they go down for a nap at 5:00 PM, don't expect a cheerful dinner at 6.

At home on weekends, we try to keep a normal schedule.

My daughter is almost done with naps, so it is easy with her. But up until age 3, she pretty much needed an afternoon nap.

Right now the baby sleeps whenever he feels like it. So it is no big deal to change schedules because when he is ready, he just falls asleep.

Posted by: foamgnome | January 8, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

WorkingMomX- those are a few of our favorites as well!

We definitely deviate from our bedtime schedule on occasion, more during the holidays than other times. My kids seem to do fine with staying up a bit later now that they are getting older. We do adhere to their dining schedule as much as possible. They all turn into beasts if they are hungry, especially the younger three. If we aren't going to be eating on time, I pack good snacks to hold them over.

Posted by: thosewilsongirls | January 8, 2009 8:42 AM | Report abuse

As jezebel said, every kid is different and you have to go with what's best for your children. When our kids were younger, they needed their naps and their regular bedtimes, especially our son. Now that they are a bit older (7 and 5), we can push thiings a bit if we need to. We're still not going to let them stay up 2 hours late because we're the ones who are going to have to deal with their crankiness the next day, not Grandma. But we might push it an hour.

Posted by: dennis5 | January 8, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

I would think its a folly to be strict and uptight about trevial and insignificant things in life. In our house, we generally have a window of about an hour to get the kids in bed, and it expands to an hour and a half on weekends. We generally allow them to sleep in. Our kids stopped, refused, to take naps since they were two. However, on vacation, if our kids are tired, we put them to bed even when their cousins are still on the go. We do find that our kids generally keep to the routine themselves. On holidays, they ask to go to bed at 10PM (1hr and half later than normal), even if their cousins are wide awake. They also tend to adjust their waking schedule accordingly the next day.

Children should learn flexibility in their lives. They should be able to adjust if their environment changes. Children who must have a set routine or schedule to sleep can get very stressed and upset if that routine or schedule is altered in some way. I have known children who could not sleep anywhere else other than their beds. Or kids who adopt odd quirks from their parents like having to have pillows arranged in a certain fashion before falling to sleep. Isn't better to have a kid that is comfortable enough with themself and their environment to go to sleep at any time or manner, even if it is on a sofa or in a plane?

Posted by: vidusa | January 8, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Part of the answer depends on the child's personality, but the other part depends on the child's age. Right now, our son who is 18 months old needs to stay on his schedule as much as is humanly possible. He becomes incredibly unhappy when he's off his schedule and doesn't sleep through the night when he has that kind of disruption. On the other hand, I can certainly see in a year or two the possibility that special occasions could throw off his schedule and it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Really, though, age plays a huge role. By the time the kids are 8, they'll usually sleep in if they stay up late and then it's not so bad.

Posted by: rlalumiere | January 8, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

One thing I know for sure is that your daycare provider HATES if you get too off schedule during the weekends and holidays. That first day back can be brutal. My daughter is pretty regimented by her own nature and by daycare. On the weekends and holidays we strive to at least keep her nap start time within 30 mins of normal. However, we're more flexible about bedtime, wake time, and eating. This kid will sleep more than 16 hours on non-work days if we let her. She gets the recommended 13 hours during the week, but since it appears she needs more, we let her catch up on the weekends. We usually limit it to 16, though, lest we rouse the too much sleep demon.

As far as sleeping any time, any place, not this kid. She needs a horizontal sleeping surface. She can sleep in the car seat, but not well. I won't complain, though, because she's a very good sleeper.

Posted by: atb2 | January 8, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Our bigger issue with the holidays and relatives was vastly different parenting styles (play yard & no kids at the dining table). We prefer to have our toddler "help" with chores or play nearby. And she certainly eats at the table with us!

It certainly didn't help matters that we were all short on sleep due to another relative's toddler (i.e. screaming until falling asleep and waking up all hours of the night screaming).

Posted by: ishgebibble | January 8, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

No established bedtimes for the Whacky kids. No bedtime battle. When they get tired, they go to sleep. Half the time, I'm the first to hit the sack and my 6 year old will read me a story as I fall asleep.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | January 8, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Bedtime is important in the SHDD household. DD functions much better and is even cheerful in the morning if she is in bed by 8 pm. I get up at 6:30 and she is normally eating breakfast in her pjs at 7 am when I leave for work.

We do make exceptions like this Saturday we are going to Wizards basketball game but we try to keep on a regular sleep routine.

Posted by: shdd | January 8, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

I think it's important for children to get the "when in Rome do as the Romans" message when they are guests.

Usually a Grandma or Aunt will adjust for your kids' sake, but with friends or others you need to be ready to jiggle schedules and squelch behavior problems in ways you might not resort to at home. Teaching your children to go with the flow and behave when visiting is a life-long skill that will benefit them greatly!

Personally I think 3 weeks of visiting would be much more than I could stand. I much prefer short visits so the end of it all is never too far away.

Now as for 5 p.m. reservations. I hate waiting at restaurants with kids or without kids. I don't drink so parking myself at the bar for the duration isn't an option. If I have a choice I'll always eat early.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 8, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

I finally eased up on the bedtime routine for the holidays, and paid for it. Still paying for it, actually, 2 weeks later, with a cranky, sassy, agressive 3 year old with sleeping problems.

Yeah, once we get that straightened out, I'm not giving in again until he's 12.

Posted by: Mazarin | January 8, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

As others have said, this is such an individual issue, and one that changes over time, but not necessarily predictably. And the later they stay up, the harder it is for them to fall asleep. That was especially true when they were little, but it's still true, to a lesser extent.

My older dd has always needed a lot of sleep and was noticeably crabbier when she didn't get it, although she would sleep in a little bit to partially make up for it. She needed naps all through preschool and still napped on any non school day all the way through kindergarten and into first grade (her bed time was 7:30 and she was out like a light). Now, at age 10, her body is able to recover better, and we do sometimes stay up later, if I can see that there will be time the next day to recover.

Younger DD (7 yo) has never needed as much sleep as her sister, but she also never slept in--so there she'd be, up at 6:30 on not enough sleep and ready for a meltdown by 10. So since she doesn't have the sense to sleep in, I have had to make sure she gets to bed early enough. Again, as she gets older, she is able to recover more easily.

But, as Brian suggested, it is not just about sleep. I have to look at what is happening the next day to see if they can stay up late. They can either be up late one night OR have a busy, stressful (in a good way) day the next day, but not both, or it isn't fun for anyone.

Posted by: janedoe5 | January 8, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

like others have said: it depends on the age of the child; there are certain ages that are more rigid than others & it depends on the temperment of the child. there are certain children who need structure more than others. ds was one of those kids that as a toddler really prefered structure & routine. as he's gotten older he's gotten less rigid. even so, he loves the traditions of the holidays; messiah sing-a-long & santa at the trolley museum.

Posted by: quark2 | January 8, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I would think its a folly to be strict and uptight about trevial and insignificant things in life. In our house, we generally have a window of about an hour to get the kids in bed, and it expands to an hour and a half on weekends. We generally allow them to sleep in.

Posted by: vidusa | January 8, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

That's great if it works for your schedule. Our kids need to be up at 6 so we can get out the door, so we don't have the luxury of letting them sleep in. And if they go too far off schedule on the weekends, it takes 2 days to get them back on track so it's just not worth it.

A regular schedule might be trivial and insignificant to you and your family, but it's very important to our family to keep everyone sane.

Posted by: dennis5 | January 8, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

As always, depends on the kid. For me that's a recipe for disaster in that I'd get a migraine. These things can add up fast.

Not to mention, most adults need naps also and don't take their sleep seriously enough. I think it's best to scale down and be reasonable and really enjoy the holidays and be a good example to kids so they won't feel the pressure when they are adults to go hither and yon on days they should be relaxing and appreciating a break.

Posted by: EmeraldEAD | January 8, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I get up at 6:30 and she is normally eating breakfast in her pjs at 7 am when I leave for work.

Posted by: shdd | January 8, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Wow! Only 30 minutes to shower/bathe/groom and all the other stuff to get ready for work in the morning?

Posted by: jezebel3 | January 8, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I'm in the depends-on-the-kid crowd too. Our boys haven't changed their needs much since they were toddlers.

Older son, like me, can stay up till all hours, maybe sleep in a little the next day, and still be his normal pleasant self. Younger son will let us know he's tired, and will put himself to bed, or fall asleep wherever he can become semi-horizontal - ever seen an 11-y-o sleeping in the middle-row bucket seat of a minivan? I did on the last week end of the old year. It was kinda cute, but he was a bit embarrassed about the drool on his face and the arm of the seat once we got home.

For us meal-times are less flexible. If younger son is hungry, he's a horrible, vicious monster! Now we recognize that wanting to kill him is a sure sign of needing to feed him. Older son *will* find something to eat, somehow, and it probably won't be something we'd approve of putting in our bodies. He also won't bother with asking (or remunerating) the owner of whatever-it-is that he's decided to consume. And DH is a type I diabetic, so he has to eat and inject insulin on a regular schedule.

Posted by: SueMc | January 8, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

"Wow! Only 30 minutes to shower/bathe/groom and all the other stuff to get ready for work in the morning?
Posted by: jezebel3 | January 8, 2009 1:59 PM"

Shower the night before. As long as you don't work up a sweat overnight (wink wink, nudge nudge) you're fine.

Our kids are old enough not to worry about this schedule stuff anymore. We have the other problem - college student would prefer to sleep 0500 - 1800 and prowl the night; one high school student sleeps 0130 - 0630 during the week and 0300 - 1200 on weekends if not working; other high school student sleeps 2200 - 0545 sharp except on weekends when it's 0100 - 1400; and middle school student sleeps 2130 - 0630. Just try getting 'em all in the same place at the same time in the same state of consciousness!

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | January 8, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm with you, Rebeldad. We pick up the pieces when we can and view family time around the holidays as part of the special season.

We all pay a price, but we would either way and we prefer to keep as many people happy as possible instead of insisting that our kids rule everyone's lives.

Posted by: cqjudge | January 8, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Shower the night before. As long as you don't work up a sweat overnight (wink wink, nudge nudge) you're fine.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | January 8, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Noooo, you're not.

Posted by: jezebel3 | January 8, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

We try to keep the kids on schedule. This includes knowing that you will have a meltdown if you try to send the kids to bed as soon as they arrive home. The optimal schedule is to be home by 8pm so we can do a 9pm get ready for bed call.

We have stayed out late a few times but I am no longer in favour of it. I have no desire to deal with a child that melts down because he has to go bed when he gets home because it is late. It doesn't matter if he gets home late because we went out or if he arrives late because my DH picked him up late on Friday night. You can not tell my stepson that he has to go to bed right away because it is late without some kind of crying involved.

Being hungry? That doesn't seem to be very much of an issue in our house with either child.

Posted by: Billie_R | January 8, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

It depends on the kid and the age of the kid, of course. We can get away with moving things around with our 4-year old, but not with the 7-month olds. And even for the 4-year old, bedtime can't be moved back more than 45 minutes or so without dire consequences. I imagine by the time the kids are all school-aged, staying up an hour late now and then won't be a huge deal. As for meals, well, the kids have to eat when they're hungry, but if my MIL is scheduling a family meal for 2 pm, I just feed everybody beforehand.

I hate it when people push their kids to the point of misery... we had to spend all of thanksgiving listening to my 15-month old neice scream and wail because she was so overtired, since her parents are firmly in the "I shouldn't have to adjust my schedule because of my kids" camp.

Posted by: floof | January 8, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

cqjudge wrote:
"We all pay a price, but we would either way and we prefer to keep as many people happy as possible instead of insisting that our kids rule everyone's lives."

That sounds pretty harsh. Who says making sure your child has the amount of sleep he/she needs, or eats when s/he needs to is insisting they rule everyone's lives? When we've been in the same house as family, my kids go to bed when they need to. And if mealtimes are off schedule-- like floof, I give a snack as needed. When we are staying somewhere else, the kids and I exit as needed to keep everyone sane. And if the agenda includes things that wouldn't work for us, we don't go--but certainly don't insist that others refrain from doing whatever it is.

Because really, if your child had the sort of meltdowns that some children have when they haven't gotten enough sleep, we wouldn't be keeping as many people happy as possible. We'd be making many people miserable.

Posted by: janedoe5 | January 8, 2009 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Funny, I was just discussing this with one of my colleagues. I definitely agree it depends on the child's age and temperament, but how often you deviate from the norm is also a consideration. Our 3 year-old boy is usually pretty good about staying up past his bedtime (so long as he has an afternoon nap of at least an hour), and he pretty much always has been, but my 21 month-old girl is PBFH (that's "psycho-b***h-from-h**l") at 5 past 7, and if she hasn't had an afternoon nap she is absolutely unbearable.

She also has this internal clock that knows when it is 12 noon on the dot, and regardless of whatever else we are doing, if we are in the house she will go to the kitchen to pull her bib off the ring, open the cupboard to find her plate and cup, push a chair to the cutlery drawer to get a fork and spoon and bring it all the high chair to be ready for lunch, all the while yelling "PAAAATE! PAAAATE" -- which translates to "plate! feed me!". It's hilarious watching her little ritual but if you hadn't planned on lunch yet it can throw you in a bit of a panic (she has a babysitter during the week, so I am only making her lunch on weekends).

We therefore try to keep disruptions to the routine to an absolute minimum, and are glad the holidays are over and the routine is back on track!

I respectfully disagree with the poster who said that trying to keep to a routine is trivial, even during the holidays. I think one of the reasons I can get away with it as much as I do during the holidays is that while each of my kids was a baby I worked extremely hard to get them into a routine to begin with, and as a result they are well fed and sleep well and are generally fit and healthy and happy. I don't have a perfect system (or a husband who is as attached to the idea of a routine as I am!) but I have generally found that deviating as little as possible, and only for occasions that really merit it, is best for my kids.

Posted by: mummybunny | January 9, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

I agree you do have to be prepared for consequences if you decide to ignore your routine in order to allow for spontaneity --but sometimes it is SOOOO worth it. Being too rigid can be a problem too!! And when your child gets moody or out of wack after their schedule has been disturbed there is another opportunity for them to learn how to recognize their moods and emotions -- you can teach them ways to cope!!
Coach Jamie

Posted by: coachjamie | January 9, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Our kids (6 and 9) thrive on structure and routine. They're in bed by 8 most nights and go to sleep easily. They have their meals and snacks at regular times and know when to do their chores and when they're allowed TV time. But we will happily break the routine for a special occasion or just a treat - - they love the excitement of "staying up late" for a special movie or time with a grandparent. It all works out.

Posted by: ElaineatLipstickdaily | January 9, 2009 10:11 PM | Report abuse

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