Benefits from early healthy sleep habits persist in preteens and teenagers, who continue, pretty much on their own, to get healthy sleep.
I often tell parents of young children that it is worthwhile to put a lot of effort into sleep training, because it will help to steer their child away from the icebergs that lie ahead on the voyage toward adolescence and adulthood. Teenagers who do not get enough sleep are at risk for a whole host of problems—and if early healthy sleep helps prevent a Titanic scenario for your child, then the inconvenience is worth it! But although I practiced pediatrics for forty years and published my first paper on sleep in 1981, I did not actually study the long-term effects of early sleep training. Nobody else did, either. My belief was based on caring for many children from birth to college age. I decided to find out whether my impression was true.
I sent a survey to parents of preteens and teenagers whom I had cared for since birth and whom I knew had worked hard to help their young children sleep well. All the parents had two or more children, and the median age of the oldest child in each family was 17 years, while the youngest was 13 years.
I asked them whether or not there had been any carryover effect to the preteen and teenage years from the efforts they had put forth in the early years to ensure healthy sleep in their children. Five years later, I asked whether healthy sleep habits had persisted during their college years and afterward.
The parents’ responses overwhelmingly supported the following simple conclusions:
My children feel the benefits and know the difference between being rested and being tired on their own because of the healthy sleep habits when they were young and strive for it even today.
I also believe that the children can sense my conviction, and they know that their healthy sleep is important. Perhaps because they grew up and experienced the feeling of being drained by sleep deficit versus the feeling of being well rested, this was internalized by them over time. Maybe this experience is the underpinning for the young adult to regulate independently his/her sleep habits going forward.
We see a definite carryover from their early years’ sleep habits, as they view going to bed early as a reward and not a punishment. On school nights, they both look forward to finishing their work so they don’t have to stay up late. They also both recognize that they reach a point where they know they are tired and going to sleep is the best option. They associate negative behavior and irritability with being tired; our boys realize without a good night’s sleep, it is much harder for them to make it through their busy days.
Julia (age 16) said, “I think about how I am going to feel the next day before I decide what time I am going to bed. When I don’t get enough sleep, my anxiety skyrockets, and I have a hard time dealing even with simple things.” Five years later, Julia updated her story:“I’d say since working at the bakery, I am more intentional about sleep and I now consider it a health habit like exercise and nutritious food. Anytime I want to have maximum energy for the next day, the day before, sleep is a planned activity itself. If being well slept isn’t critical to the following day, then I am likely to be less thoughtful about it. Regardless of daily activities, I might decide I want to treat sleep as a health habit just because it feels good.”
Our family began our children’s journey with the importance of sleep when our oldest child was born in 2001. Our children are now 18, 16, and 15, and yes, still love to sleep to this day. We were guided by the simple principle of making your children’s sleep schedule a priority. This belief and practice has carried us through many choices over the past 18 years. We chose to limit activities when the children were younger to one or two a year during the school months because our family simply couldn’t navigate all the factors of multiple experiences at multiple times for multiple children. The demands of raising young children are great and creating a manageable routine was much easier when we took into account our choice to prioritize consistency and early bedtimes. These choices were not always easy. On many many occasions we wondered if we were too rigid. Our friends and families would struggle, at times, with our schedule. When the children were younger, Dr. Weissbluth would encourage us to adopt the “holiday” mentality when it came to unique circumstances. He would remind us the benefit of a regular routine meant that success during a short span of disruption, spread out over time, meant a return to normal would be fairly easy. However, as the children got older, this proved more difficult the busier they were. Everything became more complicated with all the demands put on the family. We really did believe we had an uphill battle to keep a focus on early bedtimes and weekday routines.
Due to following the early bedtime and naptime routines encouraged by Dr. Weissbluth, once we got past those dreaded sleepless and interrupted nights of sleep, having our children go to bed has never been a battle. What has proven to be the biggest battle, according to discussions with our children, is squaring the demands of homework, expectations of teachers and coaches, and trying to advocate for a healthy amount of sleep when it “gets in the way of commitments.” Our children know they are not at their best when they are tired. One of our children will say, “I need a good 12 hours to be my best!” Another will say, “I hate it when my eyes are heavy because I can’t concentrate.”
We have supported them when they have asked if they can go to bed with unfinished work if the effort before was valid and the incomplete nature is due to volume and not errors in judgment or time management. We discuss how best for them to advocate with their teachers, and how to navigate the ups and downs that might come with making a choice of going to bed early and not doing that extra hour of homework. They don’t like it. However, in many ways we are going right back to the earliest principles we adopted as parents eighteen years ago; in the long run you function better when rested. They are typical teenagers and will tell you it is annoying that we are continually reminding them their phones belong downstairs at night and yes, parental controls will remain on their devices.
At 30, I work as a marketing manager. I had no issues sleeping in college and to date, I have never had issues sleeping. I will tell you that I am generally the first person to go to sleep if in a group, whether it is an Irish goodbye or not, I am not ashamed to tell people I am headed to bed. I don’t think of myself as someone that needs X amount of sleep; however, I do think about getting enough sleep. I am generally in bed by 9:00, or 10:00 at the latest. I do think about sleep as it pertains to work events or social events. If I know I have a social activity I try to keep it to later in the week so that I am sure to have good sleep for the first part of the week.
Our five children now range from 27 to 20. When I first wrote a narrative for your book, they ranged in age from 15 to 8 years. I went back and reread the summary—one of the main ideas was routine. I asked each of our grown children what they remember about bedtime and sleep. I spoke to each child separately, and they all spoke of our “routine.” As our children grew and schedules changed, we were cognizant to keep a routine. They learned to budget their time to include their obligations, especially their regular attendance at nightly family dinner. I believe a key to this success is the fact that we, as parents, had never given the kids a choice in regard to this routine. Times and events changed as they aged, but the main idea was still the same: consistency in our healthy choices—food, exercise, and sleep. We did not specifically have to tell our high school or college age children to go to bed; it was a routine that grew with our family.
When I struggle with their sleep from time to time, it is often after staying up too late, changing the routine, being on a vacation, or just doing something different. What I do see is that it gets easier and easier to get them back on track again, the older they get and the more times we have done this. It is easier for both because of their age but even more because of the early sleep training we did.
It is inevitable they will have some late practices or games and the bedtime will get pushed out. What we learned very early on was to stick to a schedule a majority of the time, and when the exceptions happen, the healthy habits are still intact.
Of course, children go through different stages—nightmares, illnesses, travel, and jet lag—and each of those situations requires special attention, but over the years, I’ve always tried to get back to our routine—not letting my children stay up so late to the point where they are overtired. Now they are 12 and 14. They usually go to bed around 10:00 p.m., but there are certainly times where, because they are in tune with their own bodies, they put themselves to sleep early. On the flip side, there are other nights where they are wired from too much homework, school drama, or extracurricular activities. We all try to go with the flow on those nights as well. Kids learn best from following an example, so I try to model healthy sleep routines myself. Go to bed early, read rather than watch TV before bed, and keep the bedroom for sleeping and quieter activities.
My son is now 22 and a senior in college. During the week, he does his homework between classes and goes straight to the library when he finishes his classes with the express purpose of being able to get to sleep between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. He awakens at 5 a.m. naturally. He never uses caffeine. He goes out on the weekend and stays out late. His twin sister also awakens at 5:00 a.m. She is usually sleep-deprived during the week but gives herself Sunday to sleep as late as she wants and remains at home most of the day, studying in her room or a study room in the building. Because she likes to work late in the evening, she will take a nap in her bed, between classes. She does not go out late on weekends.
My oldest son Matthew, 19, is a freshman in college and recently told me he had trouble sleeping through the night. He is taking nineteen credits and studying four or five hours a night, even on weekends, and he has to do his own laundry. He first tried to put himself on a schedule, which meant going to bed the same time every night and waking the same time every morning. This did not work, so he decide that he would just go to sleep when he felt tired and wake up when his alarm went off. Since then, he has no trouble sleeping through the night.
When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I would often hear new parents discussing the daily struggle of their children not sleeping and how exhausted the parents were in turn. This prompted me to start sleep training at 8 weeks and by 12 weeks, she was sleeping 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. every night! I did the same with my second daughter who has also been sleeping through the night since she was 12 weeks old. Sleep training has been key in our success for healthy sleeping. There are a couple things I have learned from putting this all into action: 1. Sleep induces sleep! Naps are important. The more sleep my girls get during the day, the better they sleep at night. 2. Pushing back the bedtime does not magically make a child sleep latter the following morning. For us, the earlier the girls go to sleep, the more soundly they sleep, and this makes for a much happier and well-rested child. I have to thank my parents for recognizing how important sleep was for my siblings and me as young children. With the help of Dr. Weissbluth, they taught us healthy sleep habits, which have carried over into my own parenting as an adult.
B. Establish Priorities
There is an absolute carryover effect from the efforts we put forth during the early years to ensure healthy sleep. As parents, we were in 100 percent agreement that our children’s sleep was the priority. We adjusted our dining and socializing and never regretted these changes for one minute. We didn’t lose any friends or miss any social opportunities that were important to us because of their napping or early bedtimes. In fact, we believe it helped us learn how to prioritize how, when, and where we spent our time. As a result, we see our children making similar choices on their own. They will adjust their homework rituals during the week or weekends if they know they have to be up early for a sporting or school commitment. As long as they feel we are respectful of their desire to stay up for a special event or TV, a social commitment or weekends and holidays, they never challenge us during the week. The number one reason, we believe, the bedtime process is relatively easy is 100 percent a result of the commitment and understanding from the early months and years. They love to sleep. They find their beds a safe and restful place. The children know their own sleep needs and do not like the feeling of being tired.
Having three children in three and a half years, we learned three basic principles in those earliest days of parenting that we never forget: Your child needs a great deal of sleep, your child will be happy and healthy when they are rested, and your family will benefit from rested children. Through those simple directives, we established some very basic priorities for our family that continue to guide us almost thirteen years later. Five years later, we felt healthy sleep habits were necessary and natural. We felt healthy sleep leads to tranquility, deeper concentration, being more alert, engaging, better eating habits, even creativity and the ability for our children to self-soothe. We felt sleeping healthy provide self-esteem. As our children grew, they naturally felt we place value on sleep. I believe healthy sleep habits carried over to our daughter’s teenage life. Napping from time to time was on their radar. As young adults, they take naps and are aware of sleep; they are aware of how it feels to them and therefore map out time to sleep and rest.
When I was in college, I didn’t always prioritize sleep. During my first year, I was staying up and getting up early. After that first year, I started prioritizing sleep more even if it meant going out much less frequently. Instead, I would see friends earlier in the evening and get my work done earlier as well. I think getting more sleep in college was socially limiting. For example, I wasn’t going out as much on the weekends. However, I was still doing things with friends like camping, getting coffee, and cooking and working out together, which I really enjoyed. That being said, I did have some friends where we would only go out together, so by going out less, I ended up not being as close with them (though these were more superficial relationships to begin with). Now that I’ve graduated, I am going to bed a little earlier, which is still socially limiting. However, I still go out with friends or to events when I think it’s really worth it. In general, I still primarily socialize by getting coffee with friends, going on hikes on the weekend, or doing fun things during the day as opposed to late at night. I think what has changed most is that I now carefully consider whether staying out later will be truly worth it by getting to spend time with friends or see a show I’ve always wanted to see whereas when I was younger (first year of college), I would almost always sacrifice sleep on the weekends. I believe at this point, I value healthy sleep a lot. Now that I have graduated, I make healthy sleep habits a priority. As a student, I found balancing work, school, and socializing difficult. However, now that I have a regular work schedule, it is much easier for me to not bring work home and to make time for friends and still get enough sleep.
I very much prioritize my sleep and my friends actually make fun of me because I often choose to go home early from a weekend event so that I can make sure to get some rest. I try to keep a regular bedtime and get eight or nine hours of sleep each night. When I get sufficient sleep, I am able to think more clearly and have an overall more positive attitude during the day. I have noticed that when I do not get enough sleep and am overworked, I can get sad and homesick. However, if I have enough sleep, my mood is very good. I have recently taken on a new job role at work that will hopefully allow me to travel less frequently and lead a life where I have more control over my own schedule and sleep. I think this will increase my happiness not only in my career but overall. If I am not able to have more control over my sleep/life schedule, I will shift into a different job or career, because sleep is something I have decide I need in order to maintain a good quality of life.
C. Family Values
I do feel that getting the appropriate amount of sleep was instilled in them when they were young and the effects did and do carry through. It is almost as if getting appropriate amounts of sleep became a family value for us. I do not think that the importance of that can be overstated. When our daughters were able to catch up on sleep on the weekends, they always did so and were refreshed and ready to go. They both love their sleep and know how vital it is.
Alice is now a freshman at college. I attribute Alice’s knowledge of her sleep need to her early training and the importance we as a family placed on getting a good night’s sleep. Alice frequently brings up sleep in conversation with us. Sometimes I think she does this for the affirmation that it is okay for her to go to bed earlier than her peers. She does not need us to tell her to go to bed earlier. She knows what she needs to do.
My sense is that we had created a house so centered on balance (sleep and healthy activities) that we have had an easier time sustaining the conversation on the importance of sleep. I think that it would be very hard to employ rules and expectations around decent bedtimes for our teenagers had we not had such a strong sense of sleep when we were raising the little boys!
I think that the carryover effect has helped somewhat, although I cannot imagine not getting any resistance from a preteen/teen on bedtime. Most of their peers do not sleep much. I do think that I get a lot less resistance because the healthy sleep habits were established when the children were so young and emphasized and maintained throughout their experience.
I believe that their ability to self-monitor their sleep habits as teenagers was a result of having enforced healthy sleep habits and having been taught about the benefits of proper rest over the course of their childhoods.
We worked hard with Trystan to have a regular nap and nighttime schedule when he was young. He is now 13, and even with his homework load, a five-nights-a-week swim schedule, and weekly youth group participation, Trystan “owns” the decision to head up to bed by 9:00 each evening. Trystan recognizes the need for sleep in order to perform at school, be in a good mood, and be as strong as he can be. Trystan said that the reason he focuses so much on sleeping is because “sleeping is awesome! It is what lets me grow and get strong while I sleep. Things that I learned during the day have time to sink in. I learn when I sleep. I am a nicer person when I get sleep, and if I miss some, I can try to make up for the sleep I miss if I have to get up early. But I have to do it the same day or I don’t feel as good. I can always DVR a show that is on late. It’s more important to get the sleep and watch the show the next day or look at my phone or play a game.”
I observed and appreciated the enormous benefits of healthy sleep habits and a well-rested family from the beginning. It was not always easy to follow the guidelines I had established, because I encountered significant resistance from family and most friends. Their routines and schedules were very different from ours. Our children, when very young, went to bed so early that few could relate to our schedule. I think that our healthy sleep habits helped our children in a myriad of ways: to explore school, to foster creativity, to face frustration, and develop adaptability. I know that sounds like a lot, but I really do believe that consistent healthy sleep habits are the foundation for the full engagement of one’s resources.
We have five children ranging in age from 8 to 18 years old. My husband and I were the first in our respective families to have children. Our family members gave us a hard time when we insisted on starting a gathering later or ending it earlier so that our children could take naps at the right time. After our siblings became parents themselves, however, they admitted to us that up until then they thought we were going overboard about protecting our children’s nap times. Now they realize how important sleep is for children and how they really can become completely different people when they are sleep-deprived. They aren’t “brats”; they just need to take their nap. Getting enough sleep is a constant struggle for all of our children. As parents, we can see that the importance we placed on sleep when they were younger gave them a solid base to draw from: a calm disposition that good sleep habits seemed to foster and a healthy attitude toward going to bed.
We have tried to encourage healthy sleep habits in both girls (ages 19 and 17) since birth. I think there is definitely a carryover effect. When they were babies, my husband and I made the mental shift from “sleep is good” to “sleep is critical and essential to our child’s health.” It became something we both made a priority and have worked to maintain. It helps to have a well-rested 2-year-old to avoid turmoil and tantrums, and I believe it’s the same with teenagers. They need rest to be happy and to do their best. They need to be focused to navigate all the difficult challenges and pressures they face at this difficult age. We had to modify the sleep schedule as our girls got older and their schedules have been demanding, but we were constantly trying to encourage more sleep. An early bedtime has been what we have always done, so it was easier to enforce. At times, it has been a struggle because they’d compare us longingly with more permissive parents. Sometimes they would protest with things like “unfair, everybody else or nobody else does that.” We had to reinforce the benefits of sleep, things like not having shadows under their eyes, keeping the diary of how much better they felt when well rested, and performing better in sports. In high school, we made exceptions for special things like dances or an occasional concert that ended at midnight. But we all noticed that the high school sleep habits continued into college.
[ornament]Having four kids—8, 11, 12, and 14 (yikes!)—the sleeping habits that were started from birth have had a huge impact on them today, and all in a good way! Friends would give me a hard time that I was putting my kids to bed at like 6:30 p.m. I would kindly tell them they are not going to miss anything if we stay up later other than a good night’s sleep. Bottom line: When my kids do not get the sleep they need, they are not fun to be around. They are cranky, whiny, and pouty—who wants to be around that? Not me. You tweak as you go, but it is so much easier when the foundation has been laid down. The 8- and 11-year-olds love and cherish their sleep time, and the effort put forth early is still obtainable with little or no resistance. It has been part of their world since they were born that sleep is imperative to be a happy and productive person in our home and in life. The 12- and 14-year-olds need a lot more time to shut down these days, but it has been ingrained in my children from an early age that sleep is important for the obvious reasons! They know how amazing they feel when they get the sleep they need. They have figured out rather quickly that when they are well rested, they are happy. What parent wouldn’t want that?