Are You Unintentionally Giving Sleep a Bad Name?

My plan is all about the mechanics, the timing, the facts. In the midst of it all, I've forgotten about how my daughter feels: She doesn't want to sleep.
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This is the title I’ve scribbled on a sheet of paper, unceremoniously ripped from a spiral notebook, and tacked to my fridge. It’s my latest point-by-point plan to eliminate the repeated obstacles we have to napping: the "I'm hungry" protests, the nap ruined by poop, the possibility of too little exercise. This fabulous new and improved sleep schedule solves all of our apparent problems!

Except one.

And that’s probably why it’s not working.

My plan is all about the mechanics, the timing, the facts. In the midst of it all, I’ve forgotten about how my daughter feels: She doesn't want to sleep.

Can you relate? A recent Motherlode column gives us a new perspective on this. In “Sleep’s Marketing Problem: You ‘Have to’ Go to Bed,” Heather Turgeon writes about the messages we send to our children about sleep — and how negative they tend to be. How “OK, time for bed” can be almost like a punishment we dole out. How our tone implies, even if subtly, that sleep is an undesirable thing. She writes:

"We're late for bed," or "We have to go to bed," [parents say] with an anxious tone. Why couldn't I say, with a welcoming tone, "We're almost ready for cozy time, let's go get snugly and warm ..."

So in our house, the sleep attitude got a makeover. For me, it meant talking about sleep during the day -- not as a looming requirement, but as the fascinating subject it is. … Breakfast conversation might include: Did you know that when you sleep, information is moved around in your brain? So the things you learned at school yesterday get to the right place in your mind for tomorrow. Or, children need more sleep than grown-ups because their brains and bodies are growing faster.

Why might this work?

A University of Michigan researcher studied the power of sleep knowledge with 152 low-income preschoolers. Over eight 40-minute sessions in school, the 4-year-olds were taught about sleep habits: why animals and people need sleep; how reading is more relaxing before bed than watching TV; how 8:00 p.m. is a good bedtime. The kids did activities like practicing putting a teddy bear to bed; reading Goodnight Moon; and sequencing the steps in a bedtime routine. Parents set up a bedtime routine chart at home. (I talk about how to create such a chart in “Make bedtime less crazy” in Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.)

A month after the training program, the parents’ sleep diaries showed, the kids in the study were getting 30 more minutes of sleep each weeknight. Even though the parents’ own knowledge of healthy sleep habits hadn’t increased.

Teach kids about sleep and why it's important, the study implies, and they'll get more sleep.

It makes sense. People like to know why they should do things they're being told to do. In Zero to Five, I discuss the importance of explaining why when it comes to rules (“Follow four rules about rules”). But I hadn't connected that concept to sleep.

And perhaps many of us parents don’t know how to answer the question “Why do we sleep?" -- especially given that scientists don’t know very much about it. Here are a few things they do know, which we can share with our kids in a way that will make sense to them. Sleep:

  • discards irrelevant memories

  • moves important memories to longer-term storage
  • makes room for new learning
  • strengthens things your kids just learned -- "meaning that children are becoming better at their soccer footwork, their piano playing, or their times tables just by lying asleep in bed," as journalist Annie Murphy Paul puts it.
  • I’m going to try talking about the wonders of sleep, and not just at bedtime. I love Turgeon’s “rebranding” of sleep in her house as a pleasurable, cozy time — with the tone to match. (If you already do this, how do you say it?)

    Now, if only we could rebrand brushing teeth. …