Balancing Up Time with Down Time

By Carson Hooks – September 5, 2012

Our toddlers are nothing if not energetic. Unlike so many adults, our little ones don’t have to push themselves to be active. Instead, we have to urge them to occasional moments of relative inactivity. And even with those brief moments of calm, they seem to operate in an almost constant state of motion.

As exhausting as this often can be for us as parental units, we recognize the natural developmental role of their energy-burning waking hours. We also realized long ago the key to semi-tolerable non-stop waking hours—those coveted non-waking hours.

I read recently where someone likened having toddlers to having permanently drunken houseguests. I find nothing hyperbolic or misleading about that comparison. But while often hyper, randomly aggressive, aggressively random, and slovenly to the point of sometimes peeing themselves, toddlers/drunken houseguests are somewhat predictable and manageable. That is unless there haven’t been enough non-waking hours.

With less than adequate sleep comes the real chaos. Their minds go first, slowly but surely dragging their little bodies along. Our toddler houseguests become belligerent, borderline schizophrenics. Their randomness slides into delirium, with bouts of stuttering, incessant whining, and stubborn streaks that are immune to any and all attempts at even the slightest logical reasoning. Their already short attention spans become painfully so. Or, alternatively, their focus narrows to the most trivial minutia as their obsessive-compulsive tendencies take over their little brains. And they are now ticking time-bombs, as complete meltdowns are imminent.

Sure, sleep isn’t the only element in the toddler hierarchy of needs. Just as with active people of any age, eating enough of the right foods at the right times is essential in maintaining a consistently high energy level. And having access to constructive energy outlets allows the mind and body to flourish. Our toddlers, when hungry and cooped-up, very soon shift their reserve energy supplies to the pursuit of destruction.

But sleep is the grand poobah of variables, the very foundation upon which near-constant motion can be maintained without slipping into outright insanity. After all, we’re dealing with little people who don’t know what they need or when they need it. If left to their own whims, they will continue to go until they can no longer function. They need someone to shut them down in order to recharge so they may once again operate at their optimal breakneck pace.

In our experience, nowhere is the integral nature of toddler sleep more evident than after their time away with the grandparents. We all love the grandparent getaway. Julia and I love it for the break from toddlerdom. But we also value the experience for our kids. We want them to enjoy spending time with their grandparents in a different setting without us parents as intermediaries. And I’m pretty sure they do enjoy it. Too much.

The sleep schedule at the grandparents’ house is, shall we say, a little looser. Our boys pack in their usual array of activities but in a binge-like fashion, spending less time recharging their depleted batteries as they spiral into a growing sleep deficit. By the time they are returned to our house, they are running on fumes. They are still in motion, but rudderless. There is no gradual parental reentry period as we are reunited with exceedingly irrational heathens.

And so it is, “To bed with you!” Sleep is forced upon them—that wonderful medicine that rejuvenates both the mind and the body, even in the case of a grandparent hangover. Like a drunken houseguest, they are required to sleep it off.


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