It’s 9.30pm when I leave my daughter’s room. She is asleep, but not for the night. She will wake around midnight for a hug, and then again a few hours later, for a hug, a sip of water or milk, or to be soothed back to sleep in arms.
We are exhausted, her dad and I. Sleeping in cycles of two to three hours is taking its toll. On a Madrid Facebook group, called ‘Mom and Baby Madrid’, I come across someone called Polly whose slogan is ‘Good Night Sleep Tight’. For two years now, we’ve been taking turns on who sleeps nearer the door; who will be on duty. There’s not been much of a ‘Good night, sleep tight’ thing going on. More, ‘Brace yourself, good luck, it’s your turn.’
I wrote a message to Polly, intrigued, but more from a journalistic point of view than as an exhausted mother. After all, this was normal, right? This was how it’s meant to be. Parents don’t sleep for years, everyone says it. Everyone knows it. What I really wanted to ask Polly was, do the kids she helps cry? What I was interested in was the controversial idea of sleep training, and the very cruel-sounding ‘Cry It Out’ method, when parents walk away from their little one and leave them to exhaust themselves from tears, until they give up and sleep.
Polly suggests having a chat on the phone. The research call quickly turns into a consultation. She soon tells me that not only are my husband and I exhausted, but our daughter is, too. She tells me what I’ve been secretly suspecting all along. That our Spanish lifestyle is our biggest obstacle, and that 9.30pm is too late for a toddler to go to bed.
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When I first moved to Spain, I wasn’t aware of kids’ bedtimes. I was more aware of the family-friendly culture, seeing little ones running around terraces in the evening when English children are long asleep. This is amazing! I’d say. And I still think it is amazing. But at what cost does this relaxed, all-the-family-out-till-ten-or-eleven, come? I know of toddlers who go to sleep at 9.30pm-10pm-10.30pm and maybe even 11pm sometimes. Our own daughter’s bedtime, which had been between 8.30-9pm, got pushed back after a long summer of relaxing on the grass when the strong sun rays had gone down. My incredulous London friends and family, whose children are asleep at 7pm, couldn’t believe it when I told them my baby went to bed at 9-9.30pm.
“That’s the way it is!” I’d explain, shrugging my shoulders.
But on the phone, Polly tells me: “Children in Spain need to be asleep from 8pm.” She explains it’s 8pm in Spain, and 7pm in the UK, because in Spain “we’re on the wrong timezone down to Franco wanting to be on the same timezone as Hitler”
Why exactly 8pm? “Our internal biological clock, or circadian rhythm, starts to prepare the body to go to bed between 7.30-8pm. Melatonin starts to secrete and is highest around midnight-1am – this is the hormone that helps us get to sleep.”
She continues: ‘The hours slept between 7.30pm-1am are the best quality hours of sleep, when it’s the deepest and most restorative sleep, so we want the majority of sleep in this time.’ If children miss out on this key time, she says, ‘there will always be a slight deficit of sleep’.
And what are the side-effects of a lack of sleep? Polly supplies the long list: it affects their state of wellbeing, can bring behavioural problems, cause depression, affect relationships and the making and keeping friends, cause ADHD if sustained over a long period, disrupt growth and physical development and nota id Good health in general. She says it has been shown to be related to obesity, affects learning and memory, hand-eye coordination, and lack of concentration. Basically, she summarises, ‘It doesn’t allow the child to perform at optimum state.’
Polly expected her clients to be expats, but the vast majority are, in fact, Spanish. And yes, she confirms they often tell her their friends think they’re mad, putting their children to bed so early.
The question is, is it really possible to have regular bedtime at say 7.30pm-8pm? It is, because Polly does it herself (with her three children), as do her converted clients. It’s not without its complications though, which I found out when I embarked on our new bedtime regime.
New bedtime came much earlier, and with some other simple but key pointers. Keeping it snappy and not letting it drag on and on, which my daughter and I have a tendency of doing. Also – consistency. Sounds so easy, and I thought we had it covered, but Polly saw holes everywhere. For example, the parent that starts bathtime should follow through to sleep – no swapping, which we were guilty of every now and again. Also, if Dad was home mid-bedtime routine, he couldn’t make an appearance. Again, we were guilty as charged. Finally, no more milk during the night.
“But she’ll cry!” I protest.
Polly tells me of modern parents’ fear of their children’s tears. This is me. I can’t stand to hear my daughter cry. It drills through to my inner core, and harks back to her as a tiny, low-weight newborn that I had to nurture and care for 24 hours a day.
‘Tears are a child’s way of communicating.’ says Polly. ‘When you’re changing habits, it’s normal for a child to be annoyed. As a parent you need to know you’re putting healthy sleep patterns in place.’
Empowered and less anxious about tears, we embarked on our new bedtime routine. In days our daughter was sleeping all night, uninterrupted. People don’t believe it – I wouldn’t either. It was magic. But how? Other parents ask. I don’t know! It just happened. And were there tears? I’m not going to lie, there were a few. But I was always there, beside her, she was at no moment left to think I’d abandoned her. She knew exactly what was happening and why. And now the three of us sleep like a baby, from 8.15pm to 7am.
Now it is a case of Good Night Sleep Tight.
Polly is a registered nurse, mum of three and sleep consultant who lives in Madrid. She works with families on making personalised plans that work for them to create healthy sleeping habits. Find out more at the Good Night Sleep Tight Website.