Kids and Sleep

20160724_160613000_iosOur sweet friend, Leia, who we made a makeshift bed for during our gathering one Sunday.

When I first had Liam, my mentor gave me the best advice on practical parenting I’d had before or since–make sleep the biggest priority for your kids.

Thank you, thank you, oh Yoda. Your words have served our family well.
(Her name isn’t actually Yoda…)

Her philosophy was that most behavior problems in children come from a lack of sleep. I’m far too lazy to look up any research to back her up, but trust me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, she was right. OK, OK, theologically their behavior problems come from sinful heart issues. But we’re body and soul together, where our flesh affects our hearts and our hearts affect our flesh. It goes both ways.

For instance, there are many times my physical body is broken down, maybe from hunger or fatigue, and sometimes the gift God gives you to fight temptations that invariably increase during those times is to simply eat something or take a nap. Same for our little ones, even though they can’t quite evaluate this for themselves. Sleep is an important tool to help our kids, even the littles, fight the temptations that come from living in our sinful flesh.

Now, before I tell you how the Bells have handled sleep so far, remember that kids aren’t robots. None of our children fit into a perfect box here. I know you’ll hate this, but you just have to use the instincts God gave you according to each child’s needs.

Also, as I’m preparing to write this, I’m thinking, “Oh crap! I don’t actually remember what we did with babies!” I’ve done the baby and sleep thing six times, and my youngest is only four, but yeah–you really do forget. This should let you know how helpful this article will be. Please excuse me while I refresh my memory a bit…

And I’m back! I’m sure you noticed my absence.

(The recommended hours of sleep are in parentheses beside each age, according to WebMD)

Newborns-4 Weeks (15-16 hours): During these first weeks, we do a mix of feeling out baby’s rhythms and helping them adjust to ours. We typically do a feed-keep awake for a short time to play-sleep routine. If baby wakes up before three hours, I feed them and start the cycle over again. If they try to sleep longer at this age, I wake them up at the three-hour mark from start of the previous feeding. We do the same through the night, too. Our experience has been that baby stretches closer to the three-hour mark if we really try for the play time right after the feeding. I have no idea why (WebMD should totally hire me to write for them with all my research), but baby just seems to sleep better when they’ve played a bit before naptime.

1-4 Months (14-15 hours): There’s a slow transition that begins here to let baby begin sleeping through the night. We gradually allow baby to have longer stretches during the night until their body adjusts to full nighttime sleeping. For our six kids whom we raised from birth, 10-12 hour stretches happened between weeks 9 and 11. That’s not right or better or anything–it’s just what our kids did. If your kids don’t, they’re still awesome and so are you. We still wake them up in the daytime if need be, we just switch to more of a four-hour instead of three-hour cycle.

4-9 Months (14-15 hours): At this point, our kids were on a schedule of three naps during the day, usually sleeping between 1-2 hours at a time and 10-12 hours at night. We still kept the same eat-play-sleep cycle with them. Dropping the third nap is different for each child. Two of my kids have always LOVED their sleep. Honestly, my ten-year-old could still nap every day if I wanted her to. They tended to hold on to that third nap longer than the others. If over time they simply don’t sleep, stop acting tired before the evening nap, or stop sleeping well through the night, it’s often an indication they need fewer naps. Dropping the evening nap can also means a bit of an earlier bed time for a transition period.

6-12 Months (14-15 hours): Our children still take two naps during this phase, and often we let this phase go longer than the 12 month recommendation, sometimes as late as 18 months. Again, it depends on the child’s needs. Twelve-hour nights of sleep are usually the sweet spot for Bell kids at this point.

1-3 Years (12-14 hours): Like I said, we often keep two naps past the one year mark, but most kids can switch to one nap a day not long after their first birthday.Our kids still sleep around twelve continuous hours during the night.

3-6 Years (10-12 hours): This is the point we usually start to look a bit different from other families. It seems like most families are anxious for their children to drop their afternoon nap so they can have more freedom to run errands, explore, whatever in the day. We typically don’t drop it until they’ve made it through this phase. Threenagers’ little bodies are changing so much, and it’s rough to make it 12 hours with no rest. Now, a couple of my kids did stop napping consistently when they were three, but I haven’t had one who was ready to drop completely at this age. This is where “rest time” becomes more the norm. They would read books in bed for an hour or two. A few days a week, they fall asleep, and a few days a week they don’t. Currently, one of my four-year-olds could take a four-hour nap each day if we’d let him (we don’t!), our other four-year-old sleeps 5-6 days a week, and our five-year-old sleeps 2-4 days a week.

7-12 Years (10-11 hours): We gradually let our children stay up a bit longer during this phase, pushing bedtime back by 30 minutes as the child grows. Our 11-year-old goes to bed around 9 and wakes up on his own between 7 and 7:30. He did recently get a late Friday night bedtime of 10:00, and he’ll usually sleep a bit later on Saturdays. This basically means he stays up later than me most Fridays. Dang, I’m a party animal…

12-18 Years (8-9 hours): No words here. I haven’t raised a cub in this age range yet. I just thought it was fun to include it like I have a clue what I’m doing.

One last thought here. I don’t believe in a child-centered home. Nor do I believe in a parent-centered home. I believe in a Jesus-centered home, which entails giving up your own desires as your Big Brother did. I mentioned this briefly above, but the biggest reason it seems parents push their kids out of the sleep they need (I do it, too!) is because we’re just weary of revolving our schedules around our kids. We’re ready for an easier season where we can add in activities we’ve missed or look forward to. Or we want more freedom to do things on our time for our convenience. Sometimes, the right thing is to blow off a nap or drop naps for necessity. But I think more often we need to remember that rest is a precious gift from God. It’s good for our kids, and it’s good for us. Sit and be still, knowing this season is from him and for him. Use their rest time to be content in this season. And if you do this well, let me know in the comments. I would love to learn from you.

Babies: The Most Important Thing You Can Know About Raising Them

I have a hard truth to tell you about raising babies–you’re going to be terrible at it. No, really, I mean it. Not trying to tear you down here (some of you before you’ve even started), but I can’t do you any better favor than to tell you this truth. You’re in good company, though, because NO ONE has ever been any better than horrific at it. So hooray for fitting in!

Yes, yes, yes, there are many parents full of wisdom who have had much success with how their children turned out. Biographies upon biographies have been written by children about their amazing parents. But I promise you every single one of those parents have done multiple things that should have royally jacked up their children forever, sentencing them to a lifetime of therapy.

So why in the world were they successful?! One word–grace. Just grace. For some of them, it’s common grace given by God to all who are created in his image. For others, it’s grace through the work of his son, Jesus. This one is far more powerful and lasting. Either way, grace is the answer.

Some of you may be tempted to feel defeated by this truth. I, for one, am a control freak. I like earning everything that’s good for me. I don’t accept handouts well.

But this grace isn’t binding. It’s freeing. Freeing to know when we’re so sleep deprived we stop liking our baby for a while, when we yell at our spouse because we think everything’s their fault, when we leave our babies screaming in their crib longer than we should because we don’t feel like we can take it anymore, when we’re sure our child isn’t hitting milestones because we’re not giving them enough individual attention. In those moments, grace frees us. In those times of absolute weakness and horrific parenting, God looks at followers of Jesus as though we’re perfect parents because Christ was perfect for us and died in our place. Our verdict is “not guilty.”

If you believe you are a good parent or are going to be a good parent, this whole series will be a total waste of your time. There’s nothing I can offer you. For the rest of us, the ones who spend far too much time reflecting on how badly we fail, read on. There’s still hope.

Raising Babies

After eight years and six babies, I’ve finally realized something. I don’t know much about raising babies. Therefore, I’m starting a series of blog posts about how to raise them.

I figure this is better than writing posts about how to raise eight year olds, cause I’m in the middle of doing that for the first time and haven’t realized yet that I don’t know what I’m doing. So babies it is!

These posts will include the good, bad, and ugly, probably with the heaviest weight being on the ugly, but I hope to be real. Real in a way that encourages all of you currently in the trenches of parenthood or about to enter the trenches. Real that goes past perfect Facebook statuses, “follow these six easy steps” how-to books, or controversial topics. Just real father/motherhood with screaming, cuddly, puking, non-verbal, non-mobile babes. Parenting for moms and dads who realize they’re completely weak.

So read on during middle of the night feedings when reading isn’t really possible, during the kids’ nap times when we all know you’ll be too exhausted to even sleep, or right in front of them when all hell is breaking loose but you’re choosing to ignore it. I pray it brings you at least a teeny bit of encouragement.