It’s Friday night. There’s no school tomorrow, and you don’t have any big weekend plans. Does it really matter if you let your kids stay up late? After all, you frequently stay up later on the weekends, and you’ve never suffered from it. And your kids, just like you, can sleep in tomorrow morning.
When your kids were really young, you paid for late bedtimes with tantrums the next day. But as your kids get older and better able to handle some shifts in their schedules, it feels like no big deal to let the weekend bedtime slide. But is it?
The truth is, a late Friday night doesn’t just affect Saturday morning. Long-term, a consistently late bedtime on the weekend can wreak havoc on your child’s sleep all week long.
Why Consistent Bedtimes Are So Important
Sleep debt is one reason why a late Friday night could ruin your week. You can’t make up for lost sleep in just one night, and over time, sleep debt builds up to create ongoing problems for your child’s behavior and development. And an occasional late bedtime is even more likely to create sleep debt, since your child will probably still wake up at the usual early time, despite the late night. Over time, even just one night a week of shortened sleep means your child will become chronically sleep-deprived - and it can take weeks of extra sleep to recover.
However, an irregular weekend bedtime isn’t just a problem because of missed sleep. Even if the total amount of sleep your child gets is the same, inconsistent bedtimes can have the same impact as sleep deprivation. A 2011 study in Australia of kids ages 5-10 found a significant correlation between irregular bedtimes and bad behavior - even for kids who were getting the recommended 10 hours of sleep per night. The strongest correlation was with hyperactivity - kids with changing bedtimes were 6 times more likely to have hyperactive behavior. Which means that those late weekend bedtimes could have a big effect on your child’s success in school.
Another study found a similar correlation that connected shifting bedtimes with depression and anxiety. The focus of this study was on young teens, and researchers concluded that “the daily variability in adolescents' sleep time was...just as important for the youths' average levels of daily psychological well-being as was the average amount of time spent sleeping each night.” In other words, kids’ mental well-being isn’t just dependent on how much they sleep; it’s also affected by when.
Finally, inconsistent bedtimes can affect cognitive development. A 2013 study found that inconsistent bedtimes can affect children’s cognitive abilities, including reading, math and spatial thinking. This study found an especially strong correlation for girls, and it looked at bedtime consistency independent of other factors.
How to Keep Bedtime on the Weekends
Convinced yet? Knowing that regular bedtimes are important is one thing, but actually getting your kids to bed on time is something else. Here’s how to make bedtime happen the right way, at the right time, every day - even Friday night.
Secret #1: Get up early.
Sleeping in on Saturday may be the reward you look forward to all week - but it’s also the biggest factor affecting bedtime on Saturday night. Most young kids will wake up around the same time on the weekends even if they’re up late (which is part of the reason why late weekend bedtimes are so bad for their sleep). But as your kids get older, they might also get better at sleeping in. Much as you’d like to enjoy your long-last opportunity to relax in the mornings, the time your kids spend in bed in the morning is likely to translate to time they spend up late that night.
Secret #2: Go outside.
Exposing your child to bright light early in the day will kickstart their circadian rhythm, setting them up for an energetic day and an easy bedtime. And there’s no better light to jumpstart your morning than the sun itself. If you want to set your kids up for an early bedtime all weekend, send them outside to play on Saturday morning. The early morning sun will tell their brain it’s time to be awake and active. Plus, they’ll enjoy all the benefits of outdoor play, like exercise and socialization.
Secret #3: Skip the late-night events.
The biggest challenge to weekend bedtimes is late-night events. When your child was young, you hired a sitter if you wanted to go out late on Saturday, but the older your child gets, the more likely it is that their friends and even school will be scheduling parties and events that last way past bedtime.
It sucks to be the party pooper, but don’t be afraid to be the voice of reason in your child’s school PTA. Point out to the adults in charge of scheduling activities that late weekend bedtimes are harmful to all the kids. Push for school functions to end at a reasonable hour, in time for everyone to get home and settled by bedtime. And if you have to, don’t be afraid to say no if you feel an event isn’t worth it - or at least to insist that your child comes home before the event is over, in plenty of time for bed. Your kid may hate missing out on the late-night fun, but in the long run they’ll benefit from the consistent sleep.
Secret #4: Schedule weekend activities.
Unscheduled play is highly beneficial for kids. But if your child goes from nonstop scheduled activities all day every weekday to a free-for-all do-nothing every weekend, they'll be more likely to struggle with getting up and getting to bed consistently. Rather than packing everything in during the week and then doing nothing all weekend, consider spreading out activities so they have a little bit of a schedule on the weekends, too. For example, a morning class for their favorite hobby every other Saturday will help keep their weekends similar to the rest of the week.
Secret #5: Keep bedtime routines the same every day.
Finally, don’t get lazy about bedtime routine on the weekends. Tempting as it is to let your child stay up late watching TV on the weekend, that’s the worst thing you can do for their sleep. Even if you let the actual time slide a little on some nights (by no more than 15-30 minutes at most), make sure you keep the routine as consistent as possible. Having the same bedtime routine on Friday as you does on Thursday will have a big impact on how much sleep your child gets all week long.