Welcome back to Sleep Better, a new advice column to answer your most pressing questions about sleep — how to get more of it, how to improve the quality of it, and how to beat the most common factors that disrupt it. Each month, Shelly Ibach, Thrive Global’s Sleep Editor-at-Large and President & CEO of Sleep Number, consults with other top sleep experts for the best tips on how to upgrade your sleep, and thus, your overall well-being. Submit your sleep questions for Shelly via Instagram; DM them to @shellyibach.
Q: “I work in finance and my wife, Lauren, also works full-time. My commute makes it difficult for us to balance spending quality time with our 8- and 10-year-old sons while also making sure they get to bed on time. Often we find ourselves facing a trade-off: either spend a great evening together as a family, playing games or with our dogs (leading to later bedtimes and sleepy boys in the morning), or rush through dinner and homework to be sure the boys are in bed early enough to get plenty of sleep. Any thoughts on how we can maximize family time without sacrificing their sleep?” — Daniel Hodges, director of finance, Orlando Health Medical Group, Satellite Beach, Florida
A: Daniel, it’s fantastic that you and Lauren prioritize spending time with your children after work. I’d recommend once you arrive home, take a few minutes to unwind. After dinner and homework, make your bedtime routine a family event that is fun. Then you will be enjoying quality time together while everyone is getting ready for bed. You can even set it up like a game. Create a time frame and note the various preparation steps like brushing your teeth, putting on your jammies, or preparing for the next day. Allocate rewards (points or stars) for various activities and timeliness and see who wins at the end of the week. Establish a positive framework in the evening so you all benefit from a great night of sleep.
Backing me up is Dr. Guy Leschziner, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist and head of the Sleep Disorders Center at Guy’s Hospital in London who says “Daniel’s dilemma is a common one for many parents. There is no easy way to mitigate for the rigors of the commute and busy working life when it comes to your sons’ sleep. While the temptation may be to seek out more time as a family, perhaps at the expense of sleep, that’s definitely not recommended for children your sons’ ages. Sleep is essential for their physical and mental health, as well as their educational attainment.” He goes on to share that a host of studies link inadequate sleep to reduced cognitive functioning, behavioral difficulties, and emotional regulation, all of which may impact not only school life, but also family life.
Dr. Leschziner suggests that during the week you focus on activities that are part and parcel of the kids’ evening schedule — bath time, reading in bed, listening to music — “thus permitting you to spend time with your sons without it impacting negatively on their sleep.” Dr. Leschziner advises leaving the fun and exciting family activities until the weekend when nobody feels rushed. “Bear in mind that your well-rested sons will be happier and healthier, making the time that you do spend with them all the more enjoyable,” he says.
When I spoke to another sleep specialist, Fiona Barwick, Ph.D., director of the Sleep & Circadian Health Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine’s Sleep Medicine Center, about Daniel’s problem, she offered some practical advice. “Daniel, with a bit of extra planning, you and Lauren could balance tasks between you during those busy weekdays in order to maximize family time.” For example, the parent with the shortest commute makes dinner, or perhaps it’s prepped on weekends and reheated on weekdays. “Assuming the boys need to be in bed by 8 p.m, everyone can hopefully finish dinner early, preferably by 6 p.m. (though that might not always be possible) to ensure that everyone has time to digest before bedtime, which helps sleep.” To keep things balanced, the spouse who gets home last can be on clean-up duty, or can prep dinner on the weekend.
After homework and dishes are done, family fun time can begin. “Spending time together as a family is a great way to promote the positive emotions and social bonding that help us feel safe and loved as we fall asleep,” she says, adding that it is important to stop stimulating activities early in the evening, probably before 7:15 p.m. Close to bedtime, activities need to be more calming. You could take the dogs for a leisurely stroll, for example, but not race around the backyard with your pups.
The final 15 to 20 minutes before bedtime can be spent getting into PJs and brushing teeth. “A rough rule of thumb,” says Barwick, “the closer to bedtime, the quieter the activity. By the end of the day, the biological drive for sleep is high, because everyone has been active all day. Allowing time to relax and unwind before bedtime lets this sleep drive unfold naturally.”
Personally, from my experience with children in my extended family, it’s great to be creative. Try making bedtime fun and memorable in a good way; either a game, or you could do “gratitudes” together, taking turns telling each other what has been the best part of your day. Change the conversation about bedtime, making evenings fun, rather than a series of rushed tasks.
Also, Daniel, both you and Lauren work hard, so make sure you have time to relax together as well. Your bedtime routine is important too, and quality sleep will give you more energy and vitality to enjoy your professional and family life. It’s a balancing act for sure, but you can do it! Let me know how it goes!
Sleep well, dream big,