During the summer months, it is easy to slip into "vacation mode" even after a busy day at work or a hectic day running around at home with the kids. The weather is ideal most of the time - it's warm and the sun is out. There are activities and events to do - BBQs, games and events, treks to the beach or the park, taking the dog for a walk, or enjoying a bike ride. Depending on where you live, this type of weather is very temporary - so it's easy to want to cram everything in and make the most of the summer months. Having been there, I'm here to share with you, a PSA about the importance of keeping to your child's schedule, even during the summertime.
It is something that I learned firsthand.
Being a pediatric sleep coach for the last 6 years, I'm fairly well-known in among my group of family and friends as being pretty strict when it comes to my kids and their sleep. We have a set bedtime that is rarely, rarely, rarely veered from. When both of my kids were napping, we just didn't do things outside of the house during nap time - our days were planned around the nap(s). My husband and I have chosen to not go to some parties or events because it would have been too late for our kids and we weren't able to find a sitter. We've been told that we've allowed our kids to dictate our lives too much. I lived with that assessment just fine. I had the experience of well-rested kids - we rarely dealt with meltdowns due to our littles being overtired, our kids were rarely cranky in the mornings from not sleeping well or going to bed too late, we didn't experience bedtime battles, and frankly, my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed having the evenings to ourselves for the past 6 years after our kids went to bed. We may have become a pair of hermits for a few years, but we were okay with that and felt that the decisions we made were the right ones for our family.
With that sense of confidence, we thought that our kids were perhaps at a point where some flexibility could be enacted in our schedule during the summer months and we could do more things in the evening hours as a family.
This Summer, We Tried Something New
Both of my kids are now preschool and school aged. They're at the age where the community now has a good variety of sports and activities that they can try and play along with their peers. My kids are very social and active - they wanted to learn new sports and spend time with their friends. My husband and I certainly wanted to facilitate their desires to try new things so we signed them up for a variety of activities that occurred after school was out for the summer.
Since many sports and activities require advanced planning for coaches, places to play, and "game" times, many of them require you to sign your child up at least one to two months before they actually start participating. This was the first mistake I made. When we'd get handouts about the different sports, I'd asked my kids if they wanted to do it. (I don't really know why I bothered asking, because every time I asked, it was a resounding "YES!") I then signed them up and promptly forgot about it until I received the first email from their coaches sharing the times of practice/games.
By the time I received all of the dates and times of their respective sporting events, this is what we ended up with:
Monday evening (6:00 - 7:30) - Baseball
Tuesday evening (6:30 - 7:30) - T-Ball
Wednesday evening (5:30 - 6:30) Gymnastics
Thursday evening (5:30/40 - 6:10) Swimming lessons
Bedtime is 8:00 in our house. We start our bedtime routine at 7:00, which consist of bath/showers for both kids, putting pajamas on, reading books, brushing teeth, hugs and kisses, and into bed by 8:00.
Yeah. See where I'm going with this? I won't lie - I panicked a bit.
Giving it the Old College Try
Thankfully, the schedule above was really only over the middle two weeks in June. Gymnastics was only 3 sessions long, and swimming lessons started at the end of the June. Baseball has the longest season from end of May to the end of July, but T-Ball only had four sessions, starting the first week of June. So for two weeks, we had something going on in the evenings nearly every day of the week.
After that brief moment of panicking, I reasoned with myself that it's only two weeks. Our kids having been doing very well with their bedtimes and with us having the luxury of me being home during the summer, we would be able to relax during the day. I'd offer my youngest quiet time during the day, and we'd keep everything else consistent. Surely two weeks of this won't affect the kids too much.
I was wrong.
Actually, I'll qualify that. I was half wrong. My oldest handled the busier evenings quite well. He's at the age where he is able to sleep in a little if he goes to bed late and he's fairly independent in the mornings, so he will lay around in bed until he's good and ready to get moving. He didn't seemed phased by the later evenings where they didn't get home until 7:50 and after a super quick shower, climbed into bed by 8:15 or 8:30.
My youngest struggled. She will pop out of bed the minute her clock turns green at 7:00 AM, whether she was still half-sleeping or not - there is no "sleeping in" with her. She barrels into my room every morning to cuddle with me and will start complaining that she's hungry after about 15 minutes. Her body has a very strict circadian rhythm, and there was just no deviating from it.
With her, her struggles manifested in refusals to participate in the activities. For two of the four T-Ball sessions, she spent half of the time playing with the dirt and throwing her baseball mitt away every time someone brought it to her. This would go in waves. For 10 minutes, she'd be in the thick of the activities, laughing and having fun, and then for the next 10 minutes, she'd be sulking and kicking at the dirt in the corner of the field. This repeated until the hour was over. We saw the same scene at the first swimming lesson as well.
As much as my daughter wanted to participate in these activities and be with her friends, her mind and body were at odds with each other and she was paying the price.
When Wanting to Participate Wars with Being Overtired
When our kids get off schedule, their circadian rhythm (inner body clock) gets off-kilter. The body gets flustered on whether it should be producing melatonin, our natural sleep hormone, like it normally would if you were at home and getting ready for bed, or should it kick-start adrenaline and cortisol production to stay active and meet the demands and stresses of the activity at hand. This puts your child at a disadvantage when they finally get to bed. The elevated cortisol levels in their bodies, in addition to the delayed burst of melatonin, makes it harder for them to fall asleep and sleep well. In the mornings, when our bodies naturally produce cortisol to help wake us up, the elevated levels from night before are still in the bloodstream, thus making early wake-ups a near guaranteed event as the body now has elevated levels of cortisol again.
This means that you now have a child who went to bed late, woke up early (or didn't "sleep in") and now has a sleep debt that they have to carry for the day. This likely means that you have a cranky and fussy child on your hands.
We were lucky in the sense that I was able to offer quiet time to my daughter the day after T-Ball and she ended up napping for about an hour. But what if we didn't have that option? What if she was in daycare? At her age, she wouldn't be required to lay down and nap as she's considered to be past the napping age. She certainly wouldn't have taken the opportunity to nap during rest time - as most places will put in a movie or TV show and have the kids lay on the floor quietly. With too much freedom and her friends around, she would have been happily gabbing along with her peers.
Unfortunately, this is a reality for many kids who have later activities/events in the evenings, and still have to go to child care the next day and may not have the opportunity to rest. This means that meltdowns and tantrums are likely in their future, through no fault of their own, other than biology and society not being in sync with each other.
What I Learned and Will Do Next Time
After experiencing those two weeks with my daughter, I learned my lesson. I learned that she is not ready to be more flexible with her bedtime schedule. I also learned that even going to bed just a mere 15 or 30 minutes later is enough for her to have some struggles the next day. I also learned that I need to trust my gut, and if I'm panicking about a busy schedule, then I need to pare it down to where I'm no longer feeling at odds with it.
I made a mistake, and now I am learning from it.
For the future, I'm limiting my daughter to just one activity in the evening during the week, and only if we can be home by 7:30. That way, she can still enjoy her normal bedtime routine and be in bed by 8:00. My oldest has demonstrated that he can endure some flexibility, so him going to bed a little later to accommodate his little sister's need for a set bedtime is okay.
No where in the parenting manual does it say that we have to do everything at once or schedule a bunch of activities really close together to where we push our kids, and even ourselves, beyond our comfort zone and what our natural circadian rhythm is set at. This includes, sporting activities, holidays, special events and occasions. Even though it considered normal in our society, our biological makeup says no, and we need to listen, or else we are setting ourselves up for some miserable moments with our littles.
Even though it's tempting to slide back and not be so strict about bedtimes and nap times, our children rely on us for consistency. When their world is predictable and their schedule is the same, their body clocks operate efficiently and more effectively. Their minds, bodies, and emotions are better regulated because they are getting the rest that they need (and innately demand). This makes for happier littles, and happier parents.
Additionally, we have many years of activities and events ahead of us - let us embrace with the philosophy of starting small and respecting our children's need for consistency and a reliable schedule while their body has a high demand for it. In end, I'd rather slow down and enjoy my summer months with my children, instead of looking back and wondering where it went.
After all, isn't that what summer is for?
If you are struggling to stay on schedule during the summer months, or you want to get on a schedule once and for all, contact me and we'll set up your free 15 minutes (no-obligation) phone consult to talk about what's going on and how we can get you on the right path.
I am a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who works with families to help them resolve their littles' sleep issues. As a mom of two littles herself, Katie has walked in the shoes of her clients and is passionate about helping them re-discover peaceful sleeps in their own homes.