Parent Brain: The only way to set your child’s sleep schedule

Being a parent is the most rewarding job in the world. Also, the most demanding, exhausting, messy, stressful, maddening and hilarious. It’s no wonder that moms and dads can sometimes get a little…loopy. Hey, we’re not here to judge. But what we are here to do is bring a little insight (and a lot of levity) to these unique situations with some help from the creator of The Ugly Volvo, Raquel D’Apice. We call this Parent Brain. Consider it proof that you’re not alone. Or crazy.

The only way to set your child’s sleep schedule

We all have the same parenting goal, and that is to raise happy, well-adjusted children who speak fluent Mandarin, can play Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet well enough to be considered for the New York Philharmonic, and who land jobs at Google before puberty.

Yes? All of us? Great. And the first step to achieving the child of your dreams is setting a reliable sleep schedule.

Setting a sleep schedule for your child is literally the easiest thing in the world. The second easiest thing in the world is performing a blindfolded appendectomy on a mouse (you’re blindfolded, not the mouse), and the third easiest thing in the world is memorizing every article on Wikipedia and reciting them to the tune of The Mexican Hat Dance while simultaneously eating an avocado. I don’t know what the fourth easiest thing in the world is, but I’ll Google it as soon as my kid is in bed and asleep, which I am almost positive is something that will happen very soon.

To get your child to bed it’s helpful to have a plan, by which I mean a series of things you consistently do together which the child will then associate with bedtime.

It’s sort of like the classical conditioning of Pavlov’s dogs — only if I had the choice between getting two hysterical children under seven-years-old to go to bed before 9PM or filling my house with a bunch of bell-fetishizing Russian dogs, obviously I would choose the dogs because the structure of a dog’s mouth renders it incapable of pronouncing the phrase, “I need a glass of water.” Also, when dogs get out of hand you can totally let them sleep outside in a literal doghouse, which is a place you can only metaphorically put your children.

When setting a sleep routine for your children, start with activities that help them wind down.

Do not wrestle with them or play a song designed to get their adrenaline going, like “Pump Up the Volume,” or “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. At this time you want to limit stimulants, and by stimulants, I mean literally anything they find stimulating. This means if part of your bedtime routine involves reading them a story, steer clear of an action/adventure story or anything with a cliffhanger or a plot. If you can find something with a bunch of rabbits who hop around in a meadow devoid of conflict, great. If you can find something super dry and unengaging—a Soda Stream instructional manual or one of those wordless IKEA booklets telling you how to assemble a bed, even better. The mental state you are trying to create is one in which they are so bored that being asleep is more interesting than listening to you talk for another minute.

If part of their bedtime routine involves a bath, try to avoid giving them bath toys, which will only excite them, and instead keep your voice in a calming monotone as you explain to them the concept of water displacement. Be warned that the child may try to engage or excite you through splashing or spitting water into your eyes, but react with all the excitability of a tree stump doing a Tom Brokaw imitation. Let the water drip from your face as you stare them down like an unwavering bloodhound. If you must brush their teeth, do it wordlessly, and brush in long, languid strokes while listening to mournful Celtic harp music.

Even if your technique has worked so well that your child is moments before fading into REM sleep, they will still ask for a glass of water, which is easily remedied by having the child sleep on a waterbed with a Nalgene-style spout attached to it. They can drink as much as they need with the warning that if they drink too much obviously the bed will become much less comfortable.

“But the bathroom,” you whisper to me across the void. “They keep telling me they need to use the bathroom.” (And they may actually need to, if they’ve imbibed over 3/4ths of a waterbed.)

Getting them to stop requesting the bathroom is the boss level in the video game of putting children to bed. My own kids used to get up and use it every fifteen minutes or so until we started paying out-of-work actors in bone-chilling zombie makeup to wander our hallway as we simultaneously said, “Alexa: please continually play the song from The Walking Dead opening credits from 9PM until 7AM the following morning,” and while everyone needs to do what works best for them, the children have been visibly shaken but incredibly well-rested for the past six months.

As to how to address the issue of children waking up in the middle of the night and crawling into bed with you—we all deal with it differently. Address it however you are most comfortable, as long as you know that what you allow is what will continue. And if you’re ever hoping to get a decent night’s sleep yourself, you should get right up and march them back to their own beds, which would be so much easier to do (wouldn’t it?) if you were not watching your child’s tiny chest rise and fall as you run your fingers through their hair. And realizing that they will never be this young again and that you are so lucky to have them and be around them and that you cannot believe how much joy you derive from their mere existence. And that’s when you realize: sleep schedules are totally overrated.

Until, you know, the kicking starts.


Illustration by Mari Andrew

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