Here's a confession: My husband and I allow our sons, ages 4 and 5, to do something that many parents would consider as harmful as serving them candy bars and soda for dinner. We let them stay up late, every night.
Before you question why a terrible mother like me is permitted to write for a respected family magazine, let me hastily add that my boys, Cy and Jack, aren't yet in school full-time. So even though they're wriggling into their Batman pajamas and snuggling up for a story just before 10:30 P.M., they can -- and do -- sleep late each morning. Altogether they get 10 or 11 hours of shut-eye a night, which, experts say, is about right for children their age. Their bedtimes fit our household schedule. My husband gets home from work late, we eat dinner late, we play late, and so on throughout the evening.
Some of my friends and relatives have tactfully questioned whether such a late bedtime is good for small children. I typically respond by saying my kids seem fine -- goodness knows, no one ever complains that they lack energy. Still, the persistent questioning (with its undertone of disapproval) left me wondering: Could my sons be suffering any harm? To find some answers, I turned to the country's leading experts on children's sleep habits.
I found that most sleep specialists, not surprisingly, are unenthusiastic about late bedtimes. As several pointed out, this schedule is toughest on Mom and Dad. "In most families, parents just aren't going to have the energy to deal with a 3-year-old at 10:00 P.M.," says Judith Owens, M.D., director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital, in Providence. "Parents need time to themselves."
Still, I persisted: My husband and I get our private time over coffee and the morning newspaper instead of at night. If that's okay with us, is it okay for the kids? Well . . . as Dr. Owens and most of the others hesitantly allow, there's probably nothing intrinsically harmful about letting kids stay up late, provided -- and this is the crucial part -- that they go to bed about the same time every night and get enough sleep overall. As Dr. Owens explains in a more clinical way: "The duration and the regularity of the sleep-wake cycle are the most important factors in a child's having a quality, restful sleep."