The Seven-Year Sleep Switch: Reflections on School-Age Sleep

I don't usually focus on school-age issues with sleep --almost all of my focus is on birth to three-- but we have a school-age child in our family, and because we take an attachment- and nurturing approach to sleep, our approach includes his needs, too!

Here's the interesting thing, though: I have heard and read a lot on the developmental shifts that happen in, generally, seven year increments.  Waldorf philosophy considers age six or seven a transformational age during which children will have a leap in their thinking and emotional development (give or take a year).  Developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, also describes a shift around this age as a leap that affects all areas of development.  And this transformation is one that is picking up speed in our 8 year old. 

So much is changing within him right now.  His humour has taken a leap.  His maturity and ability to empathize is evolving.  His concept of himself, his strengths, and his challenges, is changing.  His physical strength and competency is increasing in leaps and bounds.  He has a tolerance for doing things he doesn't want to simply because it needs to be done.  He is growing his natural tendency to care for his brothers simply because they need him.  His leadership abilities are emerging.  And also, not least, his sleep needs are changing.

We have, up until now, generally gone to bed as a family (with the adults frequently 'rolling ninja-like out of bed and quietly exiting the room' so that we can watch something on TV or clean up from dinner!).  But lately, wow!: the entire day will be going so smoothly, and then as they each get tucked in a switch goes off and our eldest begins behaving in ways that are the bain of the 'night time parent'.  In short, he is mean, disruptive, and disagreeable.  His behaviour becomes what every parent who feels she has coasted through the day on top of her game, dreads: thoughts of "what?  Not now.  Not at bedtime!  We're nearly there!" creep up and parental patience is thin.  And it seemed to be happening nearly every single night for several days.

After getting over the initial let down that the day is ending like a lion, my mind tends to go to ruling out medical and health issues, because it hasn't been a 'one off' single event.  But the wonderful and complicated thing about humans is that we are much more than our physical selves.  We are inquisitive, emotional, curious, energetic, intuitive, and social.  When problems happen, it could be health-related, but it could be any of these other emotional intangible things, or a combination of them, that cause the challenge, and resolving it requires an open mind.

When mayhem became the theme at night, and it was clear that he was having a great day up until then, my husband's attention turned to looking at whether we needed to re-jig our eldest's bedtime.  As I type this, it seems so obvious now: he's been going to bed when his brothers do, despite never having needed as much sleep as they do, and up until now, a long Narnia-chapter or two has kept him in bed as his brothers drop into slumber.  But something was not cutting it anymore.

It was time for a change in perspective.  So, we did a bedtime overhaul and changed our approach, and his bedtime, to fit with his own needs for sleep.  It's been quite a dramatic improvement.

Here's what sort of thinking helped (and, as it turns out, they apply to any age, really!):

  • Resistance is Futile: If we are feeling resistant to 'meeting the need' because we feel he is too old to need help at bedtime, we shift back into the mode that we were in when he was little: meet the need, and be flexible.   We remind ourselves that we don't always know why our kids behave a certain way, but that we can always be open to doing something different that works better for everyone.
  • "By the Book": We appreciate that his temperament was not laid out in the text book of child sleep.  He may feel anxious, or be bringing worries to bed that make bedtime challenging.
  • The 'make a sandwich' concept: Being able to do something independently does not mean always doing it independently.  I know how to make a sandwich all by myself but it sure is nice to have help sometimes.
  • "The Long Game": We keep our eye on the long term goal: that sleep, and bedtime, even for an eight year old, ought to be enjoyable, relaxing, and safe so that he continues to have a healthy relationship with sleep (and so that we can enjoy it too, even if it is different than we expected).
  • Things evolve: We don't consider this a step back but simply an evolution, and a basic human condition of not being or feeling the same every day, every year, and at every age. 
  • No bad habits: We do not believe that meeting the need will create a bad habit. Sleep routines will evolve, and if they evolve in a direction that we don't like, and that doesn't work (or no longer works) for us, we can change them.  If none of the usual 'strategies' are working, consider that it may be an unmet need. 
  • Collaborate!  Ask our child what may work to solve the problem (but not ask at bedtime, when his ideas couldn't be explored or discussed fully and with patience).  Kids are learning to know themselves, and understand their own needs.  Being asked to contribute to a solution that they are a part of is powerful --and can be surprising!
  • Practical magic: We divided bedtime -young kids first with one parent, our eldest downstairs doing table top activities (drawing, writing, math: things he enjoys and seems to gravitate to in the evenings).

The last suggestion (a split bedtime) is perhaps the most tangible suggestion on this list, but it is not the most important.  It is what we came up with to try, and it worked like a charm.  If it didn't work, we'd know that all the other ways we were 'thinking' on the problem were going to help in coming up with a workable solution.  

The split bedtime also took some enticement for the younger two --they wondered why our eldest was downstairs, and what he was doing.  So we upped the interest in bedtime routine, introducing a new tuck in routine that focused on each of them individually, and we switched from Narnia to graphic novels about ninjas.  So far so good.  

We also remind ourselves that this is never an end point.  Our son will continue to shift and change, mature, and grow.  And his needs will change, too.  By focusing on problem solving and meeting the need, we know that we will be more prepared for the next challenge.  And so will he.