Sleep Training Big Kids

No one told me I would still be trying to solve my children’s sleeping issues long after they leave the crib. My kids are in elementary and middle school and sleep issues still pop up from time to time. I’m sure we aren’t alone.

It turns out, big kid sleeping issues are really common. It’s also really common that big kids don’t get nearly enough sleep, according to what pediatricians say they need. There are some medical issues that can lead to poor sleep patterns, and that’s a completely different story, but there are also a lot of behavioral issues. Most experts blame busy schedules, caffeine, too much homework, or video games and phones for keeping them awake. The experts recommend ditching or curbing these habits to make sure sleep is the priority. And a good routine is always suggested as a solution.

This is one area of parenting that I feel pretty good about. I know that kids between the ages of six and 13 need about ten hours of sleep per night. Younger kids need even more. I have always been committed to early bedtimes and consistent routines and schedules, and it has paid off. They get plenty of sleep. 

Except for my middle child. (Middle children—they are good at throwing us for a loop, right?) She has been subjected to the same “good sleep parenting” as her sisters, but it hasn’t always worked as well for her. 

We’ve said, “Oh, she must be the kind of person who just doesn’t need as much sleep.” She stopped napping at age two, around the time her four-year-old sister did. She always falls asleep last and wakes up first. She’s the kid who wakes up at the crack of dawn on the weekends to start playing or watching TV. (Mysteriously, though, we can’t get her out of bed on school days.) But lately, it’s become downright frustrating—for us and for her. She could lie awake in bed for two to three hours before finally falling asleep. 

None of the things that experts say typically interfere with healthy sleep habits really applies to my family. We don’t have busy schedules. We have minimal homework. We don’t play video games, and my kids don’t have phones. They do watch TV, but not too much. They eat healthy-ish food. They don’t drink caffeine before bed.

Recently melatonin has been “the thing” and sure enough, it has been a game-changer. My pediatrician tells me it’s safe, and I believe it is. But I am not really comfortable with her needing something to go to sleep on a regular basis. But there are nights when she lies awake for hours, and I have to choose what’s more important—avoiding melatonin or getting good sleep. 

Until, finally, I had a lightbulb moment. 

Remember that reverse logic of “sleep begets sleep,” especially for babies? I have always abided by that logic. Baby waking up too early in the morning? Put her to sleep earlier. It worked. My answer was always “the earlier the better” for bedtime.

Therefore, my answer to my middle daughter’s sleeping issues was to go to bed earlier. As it turns out, I think that was making things worse for her.

So, we decided to really shake things up and try a later bedtime!

She was sharing a room with her little sister, so this attempt at solving her insomnia took some rearranging and cooperation. The other girls had to make sacrifices too. Little Sister moved in with Big Sister, which Big Sister wasn’t thrilled about. Little Sister cried because she felt left out, left behind, and was the only one who still had to go to bed early. (The story of her life…) But they both rallied in the name of Middle Sister getting good sleep again. Bless them for that.

Here’s our new routine. Big Sister’s stays the same, but bedtime is extended from 8:00 to 8:15. As long as she gets her homework and piano practice done, showers, and gets ready for bed, all usually by 7:15 or so, she can watch TV until 8:15. Little Sister gets ready for bed, and at 7:00 we snuggle in her [new-to-her] top bunk in Big Sister’s room and read books until about 7:15, sometimes 7:30. 

Meanwhile, Middle Sister gets ready for bed, and at 7:00 she plays in her room until 8:00. She gets an entire hour to herself. She plays LEGOs, she turns on music and dances, she draws. Not only is this a big gift to her mental health, because as the middle child she doesn’t have a lot of alone time, but it is actually helping her go to sleep quickly.

At 8:00, I come up to read with her until 8:15, and then it’s lights out. And so far, we haven’t heard a peep from her after that. 

Previously, she was getting into bed at 7:00, completely not yet sleepy, so it wasn’t cueing her body to fall asleep. She was looking for ways to occupy herself in bed. She read books, she listened to audiobooks, who knows what else. For hours.

Now, going to bed a little later is actually allowing her to get more sleep. It’s a win-win. We just had to be a little flexible. 

If you are struggling with big kid sleep issues, here’s my advice: Do an audit of your current routine and figure out why it is the way it is. Sometimes the problem isn’t with your kid, it’s with your expectations or demands. Sometimes it is that they’ve had the same routine since they were babies, and they’ve grown up. Sometimes it could be that there’s no routine at all. Shake it up. Try something new. Sleep is important for kids, and our job as sleep trainers isn’t over when they get bigger. 

I grew up in Dallas, went to college and grad school in the Carolinas (Furman-->Wake Forest) with degrees in art history and ministry/theology. I work for organizations that allow me to do things I care deeply about: advocacy for immigration, public education and religious liberty. We moved to San Antonio in 2012 for my husband to pastor a church here. When we moved here, our two older daughters were babies/toddlers, and we eventually added a third. They are now 5, 8 and 9. We chose to live really close to the church and hit the neighborhood jackpot. I'm a bookworm and always have 2-3 books going at once. I have learned to love good music by osmosis (my husband has great taste!) (my current favs: Brandi Carlile, Lone Bellow), but I'm pretty happy with silence too, since it's hard to come by with small children. We don't have grandparents or immediate family in town, and I'm insanely jealous of those that do. But luckily our friends here have become like family. Favorite Restaurant: El Mirasol Favorite Landmark: Eisenhower Park Favorite San Antonio Tradition: 4th of July neighborhood parade