There are a lot of guidelines out there about how much sleep your children should be getting and when their bedtimes should be. All the advice can make the evening rush even more stressful than it already is, especially for parents who get home from work and feel like they must beat the clock before it strikes 7:30, or 8, or whenever they have decided a proper bedtime should be.
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But extreme rigidness is unnecessary. Bedtimes and sleep vary across different cultures. In Switzerland, kids have later bedtimes than the US, and in many Asian countries, such as Japan and China, teens get less sleep than teens in the US and Europe. In a FiveThirtyEight column by Maggie Koerth-Baker, a child asks why she has to go to bed when it’s light outside. The answer: Bedtimes are products of culture.
The US National Sleep Foundation says that sleep times for preschoolers could range from eight to 14 hours, with the recommended amount being between 10 and 13 hours. Bedtimes and wake times also change as we age. Children wake up early and go to bed earlier than other age groups. Teens tend to sleep later and wake up later. And, as people age in adulthood, bedtimes and wake times become earlier.
Biology still determines when you feel like sleeping, according to Koerth-Baker, but how we perceive our sleep is affected by social expectations. It becomes a problem when you’re not able to sleep or get up at the time that society expects you to. This is what accounts for diagnoses of sleep disorders such as delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. A seven-year-old not being able to sleep at 8:45PM might be an anomaly in the US, but many kids in countries such as Spain regularly go to bed past 10PM.
Also, just as worrying about not sleeping certainly doesn’t help you sleep, treating insomnia as a serious problem can turn it into one. In cultures where insomnia isn’t seen as such a big deal, some of that stress is removed.
All of this means that it’s hard to pin down what “normal” sleep looks like or what “ideal” sleep is — a problem exacerbated by the fact that we still don’t have a lot of good data about the impacts of cross-cultural sleep differences, both within countries and between them.
So next time your child claims to be unable to sleep, relax a bit — there isn’t necessarily a set time that your child should be sleeping. Instead, emphasise good bedtime routines, such as stories and yoga, and don’t freak out if your kid isn’t asleep by 7:31.
Don’t Tell The Kids, But Bedtime Is A Social Construct [FiveThirtyEight]