When it comes to American parenting, few triumphs feel as hard-won as helping your kids sleep through the night. And as any veteran sleep trainer knows, the key to a rested (and thus, sane) family is often an obscenely early bedtime. (If they’re not down by 8 p.m., Houston, we’ve got a problem.)
But in Italy, our attempts to impose order on the universe with pre-sunset tuck-ins are not only called into question, but they’re also met with a confused, “Ma stai scherzando?” (Are you kidding me?)
“Walk into any restaurant in Rome, from the ordinary to the elegant, at 10 p.m. and you will find children eating and talking at the table with adults,” writes Jeannie Marshall, a Toronto native raising her son in Rome. “Around 11, some of them will be face down in their spaghetti or sprawled over their parents' laps, sleeping while the adults linger over a bitter digestivo.”
And these digestivo-sipping parents aren’t a few glutton-for-punishment outliers who don’t have to get up for work in the morning—this is everybody.
“Since Italian families tend to eat late, kids end up going to bed even later,” writes Molly Gage, an American mom also raising kids in Rome. “This year, [my daughter] Sabina went to a birthday party that ended at midnight, which is late even for me! My kids go to bed around 8:30, but sometimes that interferes with playdates—I once picked Sabina up from a playdate at 6:30 p.m. (on a school night) and the mother was shocked and confused—they eat at 8 or so and the kids go to bed around 10 p.m. Most of the moms in her class know by now my kids are on the quirky American evening system, fortunately.”
So you’re probably wondering: If they go to bed at 10 p.m. or later, how are kids rested enough when school starts at 8 a.m.? Moreover, if they are anything like our kids, even if they go to bed at 10 p.m., they’ll still wake up at 6 a.m. (“Sleep begets sleep,” as our Nonna always said.) In other words, how (hang on a sec while we grab some pearls to clutch) do they get the nine to 11 hours of sleep recommended for school-age kids?
Answer: They don’t.
While many Italian schoolkids go home for lunch and siesta, and their school day often rings in around five hours, a comprehensive study conducted by pediatric sleep specialists at a Roman university shows Italian kids sleep fewer hours than American (and Swiss, French, Finnish and Canadian) kids between infancy and age six.
However, there’s a trade-off. The researchers write: “We found that Italian adolescents reported much better sleep hygiene and substantially better sleep quality than American adolescents.”
Since the tables are going to turn anyway, maybe we should let our kids snooze under them while we linger over a glass of vino (hey, when in Rome). After all, there’s always espresso.