E and L could have stayed up all night tonight. They choose to go to bed at 9:30.
We have never had set bedtimes in our home. When they are babies, they usually nurse to sleep. Z still does at nearly 3. Sometimes in bed, but often on the couch while I watch tv or read or use the computer. As they have gotten older, we've done a variety of things to encourage sleep.
We've had routines of taking a bath, reading a book and laying down in bed together.
We've let them each pick a tv show, they watch it, and then we lay in bed together.
We've all camped on the living room floor with a movie and slept there for the night.
They've fallen asleep in the living room many times, and we've carried them to bed.
Sometimes we watch a show on the computer in bed, and they fall asleep.
Recently, we've had audio books on the computer in bed.
We've sang them to sleep, rocked them to sleep, scratched and massaged their backs, rubbed their heads or feet, played a relaxing game, and gone on late night drives.
We play all kinds of musical beds with our bed, their bunk bed and the couch. You never know who's going to be sleeping in which one, with whom, and for how much of the night.
It might sound chaotic, but it works. It accomplishes the things I believe to be the most important things about sleep.
1) that everyone sleeps as much as their body needs when it needs it.
2) that no one else is kept awake by someone else's lack of sleep late at night.
3) that they kids learn to associate sleep with good and peaceful things.
4) that they learn to recognize their own body's signals that it is tired.
Even though we've never had a set bedtime, we start heading in that direction at a reasonable time. Reasonable being defined as a time when they are tired, depending on if someone had a nap, depending on what is going on the next day, how much in need of alone time we are, etc. Heading in that direction being defined as lights off, sound down, snuggling in bed or on the couch, and otherwise creating a sleepy environment. Usually, they are asleep between 8 and 10.There have been plenty of times where one of the kids has told us they were ready for sleep.
Recently, E and L have started wanting to stay up "all night until the sun comes up." They stayed up until midnight or one for about 3 nights, and then D and I said we really needed some alone time. So we agreed that they could stay up as late as they wanted every Friday night. That worked until last Saturday, when E started getting really upset that she couldn't stay up late that night too. I admit I did not handle it so well the first few nights. I thought our Friday night deal was THE deal and I value the time I get alone with D. She did go to sleep, but it was not peacefully.
It was Sunday or Monday when she was having a tough time getting to sleep again, and I took a deep breath, reminded myself of my principles and told her we could figure out a solution. I had no idea what! All I could think of was that she would stay up late every night, and D and I would NEVER BE ALONE AGAIN. But I knew that kind of fearful thinking never leads to peace or working together, and we had to think of something.
So I asked her why staying up late was so important to her. She said that she never gets any time alone. I said she could go in her room or my room and be alone any time. She said it's not QUIET. She liked the peace and quiet and stillness of being up when everyone else was asleep.
What we came up with was a bit complicated, but she was thrilled. We decided to trade off every other night. One night she would go to bed like normal. The next night, she could stay up and have the living room all to herself for half an hour, while D and I hung out in the bedroom, quietly. And on Fridays, they could both still stay up as late as they wanted. To make this happen though, we all needed L and Z to be asleep. So we agreed that she wouldn't mention it to them, and would pretend to go to bed like normal on her staying up night. Then once they fell asleep, she could get up.
So we did that for a few nights, and it worked great! She loved it, and happily came to bed after her half hour and happily went to bed on the nights that D and I stayed up. Tonight is Friday, so E and L were excited to stay up. They asked me to play some video games with them, which I did. Then I said I was going to hang out in the bedroom. They wanted to come, first just to snuggle. But on the way down the hall, L said she knew she needed to go to the bathroom before bed. She wasn't planning on staying up. As soon as E laid down, she said said she was ready for bed, because she had "stayed up as late as [she] wanted."
That was at 9:30.
It's so true that when they get their needs met, whether it's a need for trying out something new, experimenting with how something makes them feel, or just for peace and quiet, they figure out what works for them, and it all balances out.