How to Pick the Perfect Bedtime for Your Child

There is one question I always ask first when a parent tells me their child is:

-Waking up too early (i.e. before 6:00 a.m.)

-Waking up in the morning crying

-Fighting bedtime

-Experiencing night wakings (other than those necessary ones when babies need to nurse or bottle-feed)

What time do they go to bed?

I go there first because putting a little one down to bed at the wrong time is a BIG cause of sleep issues. 

There are, of course, other factors that go into teaching a child to sleep well, but chances are, if you can nail bedtime, their sleep will improve. 

Before I get to how to figure out what time to put your little one to bed each night, let’s address the question I get asked a lot by parents. 

“If I put my child to bed later, will they sleep in later?”

I wish the answer to this was yes. The truth is that putting your kids to bed too late only deprives them of some of their deepest sleep. 

Let me explain why. 

Depending on their age, how long they’ve been awake since their last sleep, and what time they naturally wake up in the morning, there will be a time in the evening when your child is the most receptive to sleep. If they go to bed before then, it might take them a little while to fall asleep (although they should be happy in their crib or bed). But if they go to bed after this optimal bedtime, they’ll be overtired, which makes it harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. 

We don’t want a late bedtime because going to bed too late makes sleep harder. 

Now, the next reason.

Nighttime sleep for little ones is made up of two parts. The first four to five hours of the night is when children are in their deepest (and most restorative) stages of sleep. The second part of the night is when they cycle between lighter stages of sleep.

Other than the odd night when a little one might be so tired that they sleep in the next day, a child’s natural wake time in the morning won’t change. So, putting them to bed later results in them missing out on some of those deep stages of sleep at the beginning of the night rather than starting those sleep cycles later. 

The easiest way to think about your little one’s sleep is that it’s more like a train than a car. With a car, you can get in and start your journey whenever you’re ready. But sleep is more like a train. You want to catch it when it’s leaving, or you’ll miss out on part of the journey. 

Okay, so we know we don’t want to put our kids to bed too late. Now, how do we figure out what the right bedtime is? 

This applies to kids who are past the newborn stage. Once you’ve got through those first four months or so, there are three things to consider when determining a healthy bedtime:

1 – What is their natural wake time or what time do they need to wake up for daycare/school? – whichever time is earlier. (Note: Any earlier than 6:00 a.m. is too early.)

2 – How long can they stay awake before becoming overtired? 

3 – When do they usually wake from their last nap of the day (if they’re still young enough to be napping)?

Kids up to 5 years of age need 10 to 12 hours of sleep at night. Older kids (6 to 13) need almost as much at 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night. 

Based on this, I’ll give you a couple of examples. First, I’ll use one of my kids. He’s five. 

1 – He naturally wakes up at 6:45 a.m. He would sleep in a bit later, but his brother moves around and wakes him up at this time. 

2 – He can stay awake all day. 

3 – Since he’s too old to be napping, this answer is the same as #1. 

It takes him almost a full half-hour to go to sleep because ALL stuffies must be played with nightly. Taking all of this into consideration, a bedtime of 7:15 pm works for him. 

Let’s use a 6-month old baby as one more example.

1 – She wakes up at 7:30 a.m. most mornings.

2 – At the end of the day, she can stay awake for about 3 hours before becoming overtired. 

3 – She usually wakes up from her third nap of the day at 4:30 p.m. 

She takes about 10 to 15 minutes to fall asleep at bedtime and wakes once per night to nurse. Considering that information, needing 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night, and the answers to #’s 1 through 3, I would aim to have her down in her crib at 7:30 p.m. each night. 

All of this might seem complicated, especially if you’re an exhausted parent. Here is the main thing I want you to take away from this post:

If you have a consistent bedtime for your little one that occurs before they become overtired, you’re nailing it. 

Every family is unique, but most babies, preschoolers, and young kids do well with a bedtime between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. 

If your child goes to bed later and you’re struggling with their sleep, try shifting their bedtime earlier, even 15 or 30 minutes. It doesn’t hurt to try. 

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Rachel Ross

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