What Time Should I put my Kid to Bed? The answer is not that simple. There are cultural considerations, sleep requirements, and individual characteristics that come into play.
In many cultures later bedtimes are common for babies and children! But in Western society those evening hours are sacred. I think it has to do with the fact that we are such a fast paced, high achieving society.
We are just plain burnt out by the day’s end and need some quiet time!
So what does science have to say about the time that I should put my kid to bed?
A research team, headed by Hoyniak and colleagues (2019), discovered something interesting.
They followed 500 tots over time, from the age of 2.5 to 3.5 years old. It was a longitudinal study looking at cognition, and socioeconomic status, but they looked at a number of other things as well – like bedtimes!
So what did they find?
They discovered that on average kids were not asleep until 9:30pm (even though the average bedtime was 8:50pm) Say…..what!?
Okay, why is this!?
To really understand, it’s worth taking a minute to remind you what averages mean (insert math class flash back here!)
In science there is something called a bell curve, which is commonly seen when researchers plot data from large groups of people. It helps us to understand averages.
Within the bell curve, “most people’ will fall within 95% of average. This 95% is generally thought of as “normal.”
Some people – the 2.5% on either end of the curve, will fall below or above that normal range. In general.
The bell curve applies to alllllll sorts of things. Anything from height, to weight, or even letter grades in school.
When we think about sleep this makes sense. Some kids will have early bedtimes, and others will have late bedtimes, but most will fall asleep around the same time (still with me?).
One thing to keep in mind here, is that our own sleep is an average too. We don’t sleep the exact same amount of minutes or hours each night.
We all have good nights, and bad nights.
Kids are no different!
So before you freak out that your child slept poorly, or was up late last night. Stop and think about the last few days. Or even the last week or month.
How do kids sleep on average?
Later bedtimes have a lot to do with naps
Naps for toddlers and preschoolers are super beneficial, despite being under utilized in Western society.
Problem is….too long, or too late of a nap and your child might not be tired enough to sleep come bedtime.
Too nap, or not nap your child is an individual question. It really comes down to whether your child can tolerate a dropped nap. Many kids get cranky, wired, or emotional.
While your following child’s lead, and monitoring their mood and behaviour is always going to be your best bet. There are a number of sleep recommendations and guides spammed all over the web that can give a rough guideline on sleep. Like this one 😉
Best Sleep Times for Kids
When reading guides like these, all I ask (or beg of you) is to pleeeeease keep those averages in mind.
Sleep is not one size fits all!
But, the reason I am sharing this with you today, is to illustrate another point. The kids in Hoyniak’s study were sleeping on average 8.18 hours a night at 30 months, up to 8.51 hours at 42 months old.
They were IN bed around 10 to 10.5 hours though. They just weren’t sleeping this entire time. The difference can be accounted for by the time spent falling asleep, or awake during the night.
Still, this is WAY different than recommended 10 to 13 hours of sleep (*in a 24 hour period) by the National Sleep Foundation.
In sleep and parenting groups, I often read about parents cutting naps short, or stopping them all together, so that they can get their child to bed “on time.”
On the whole there is nothing “wrong” with this practice. But, I really think our society needs to rethink this whole bedtime thing.
So the next time you “fight” to get your child to sleep by a specific time, so that you can enjoy that glass of vino in peace and solitude please keep all of this wonderful knowledge in mind.
What is the Take Home Here?
Take home message – Don’t worry if your kid is up late.
It’s normal, and perfectly healthy to put your child to bed at a time that works for you AND your family.
When in doubt, look to your child. If they are happy and healthy you probably have nothing to worry about.
If you truly are concerned, then reach out and I will give you an honest opinion of whether I can help. Let’s plan the best time that you should put your kid to bed.
Hoyniak CP, Bates JE, Staples AD, Rudasill KM, Molfese DL, Molfese VJ. Child sleep and socioeconomic context in the development of cognitive abilities in early childhood. Child Development 2019; 90: 1718-1737.
Alright folks. It’s time to unleash the Cry-it-Out debate!
I am guessing that by now you have at least heard about sleep training.
Maybe you’ve come across the term while Googling some sleep tips after a particularly difficult night. Or, maybe a well-meaning friend or family member is nagging at you to get on with it already.
A little disclaimer for anyone who has used or tried sleep training in the past. I get it! I really do. The sleep world is so H-A-R-D! This is not meant to make you feel bad, or regretful, or doubt your parenting skills in any way. In fact, I think the fact that you are reading this makes you just the savvy parent that is going to raise a wonderful kiddo!
For those who are new to this. There are a number of names, brands and variations of sleep training. Including: cry-it-out, CIO, extinction, graduated retreat, timed checks, ferberizing and more…
They are all similar in that they involve leaving a baby or child to sleep independently, typically in a crib, in a separate bedroom from their parents with minimal, timed, or no response from the parents during the night – even if the child is crying.
In essence sleep training is when you set a limit on what you will (or won’t) do for your child. The caveat here is that this limit is decided by the parent (or sleep coach) WITHOUT factoring in the child’s actual and very real NEEDS for responsive, close, loving, connection and comfort.
Sleep training involves doing the bare minimum (or nothing!) to support your child to fall asleep. The argument that sleep trainers love to use, is that you are training your child to become self soothers who can then put themselves to sleep independently. Usually, there is a push for them to sleep in their own room. (I’ll admit this does sound lovely!)
However, these methods came about decades ago, based on behavioural philosophies. Historically, they had been recommended by some big names in the literature. Advocates of sleep training promise a quick and effective solution to your sleep problems.
Opponents (including myself) are not quite convinced.
Let’s just say for a minute that it does work, personally, I still want to know…at what cost.
What are the side effects?
Is there any potential for harm?
This is the very root of informed consent. Knowing all the risks, and all the benefits.
The truth is we really don’t know!
So, today, I am going to talk a bit more about what we DO know, and what we have yet to learn about sleep training.
1) Crap Research
The first problem is that we do not have enough quality research. Sure, there have been studies looking at sleep training. The problem is that this research has been highly flawed. It’s true that there is no such thing as perfect research, but the best studies looking at sleep training have serious challenges, like: high dropout rates, small sample sizes, and poor comparison groups. One study looking at the relationship between sleep training and stress even tested the wrong type of cortisol (apparently there are two different types, who knew!?).
2) It Doesn’t Always Work, and Is Not a Long Term Solution
Advocates of sleep training commonly cite these flawed studies when convincing parents that sleep training is the best option. What doesn’t quite make sense to me is how they drew this conclusion though. Some of the studies show no benefit, and of the ones that do, show a modest benefit (as in a mere 20 mins in 24 hours!). To make matters worse, any benefit gained tended to be lost following any change in development or circumstance (i.e. nap transition, teething) requiring the sleep training process to be repeated multiple times. Talk about stressful!
3) It Stresses Kids Out
The part that sticks with me the most is the results of one particular study that showed heightened cortisol levels in babies – even after the babies stopped crying! This research tells us that when sleep training, the babies remain stressed and anxious even if they are quiet and seemingly calm.
So as it turns out, this self soothing or self settling thing that often is the key selling point for parents when deciding whether to sleep train their child is actually a myth. The more appropriate term for this would be self regulation. Which does not even start to be developmentally possible until the age of 4, and continues on developing until the mid to late TWENTIES!
You could add this all together to say that sleep training is essentially training your child to stop signaling (i.e. crying) for their parents. So instead they lay alone and stressed until they fall asleep out of exhaustion, and/or maxed out sleep pressure.
It’s a pretty bold statement, that hits home a little too hard for some (including me!)
4) Too Much Stress is Bad
Research tells us two things about our parental response. 1) That children who have been parented with a nurturing, responsive approach tend to develop more gluticorisoid receptors (which is a good thing). This helps them to respond better to stress and to get over things more quickly – even into adulthood! 2) That children who have been parented by non-responsive parents tend to have fewer gluticortisoid receptors which can lead to a heightened stress response and a slower recovery from stress – again into adulthood. Scary right? Problem is…
5) We Don’t Know Where to Draw the Line
How much is too much? The fact is we just don’t know. There are some who equate sleep training with child neglect (a form of child abuse) which has the potential to cause physiological (i.e. biological), psychiatric, and psychological harm. Personally I think that this is a bit of a stretch to equate sleep training with the type of long term, devastating neglect seen by social workers. However, the fact remains that all babies, toddlers and children are individual. They have their own unique set of protective factors, genetic predispositions, and vulnerabilities. I do not doubt for one minute that some little ones are harmed more than others. It’s just not worth the risk!
6) It Can Make Sleep Worse
It is not uncommon for parents to report a worsening of sleep following sleep training. This is in part because we have broken our child’s trust. Children thrive on consistency. It helps them to feel SAFE. When we don’t respond to them in the way that they expect and require, they can become anxious or develop separation difficulties. Parents often notice that their kids become more clingy in the days and weeks following sleep training. This is likely related to our innate need to repair any rupture in attachment. Which makes sense, babies especially are 100% reliant on their parents. They NEED that relationship to work.
Here’s another sciencey tidbit about attachment and sleep. Research tells us that kids with a secure attachment tend to sleep better. This includes having less difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, AND their sleep tends to be of better quality overall. These benefits last into adulthood!
So by attending to your child responsively, and developing that secure attachment you are increasing your chances at having a good sleeper for life!
7) It’s not Biologically Normal
This might surprise you, but contrary to societal expectation, babies (and even toddlers and preschoolers!) are NOT actually meant to sleep through the night. Nope afraid not! They are biologically hardwired to sleep the way they do. This is, in short, shallow sleep cycles. Part of this is to ensure they get adequate milk. But, we also now know that this is protective against SIDS. Their circadian rhythm is actually quite a bit different than adults, so we probably shouldn’t be expecting them to sleep like adults. Hmm.
8) It Makes Sleep a Scapegoat
Sleep is not always the problem. There are SO many reasons why kids wake at night. Think feeding issues, torticollis, reflux, sleep apnea, teething, gas pains, environmental stressors, hunger, discomfort, itchiness, etc etc etc. The list goes on. Focusing entirely on correcting sleep without looking to the why ignores the cause. The problem is, that if the cause is not actually a sleep issue, the solution will not work! (they don’t tell you this in the sleep training books do they!?) Think about it though, if your little one is in pain, or has sleep apnea for example how is this going to help them sleep better?
This is why I am a big fan of holistic sleep support. The goal is to find the cause, and work on a solution….and let me tell you, it’s rarely just about sleep!
9) Parents Hate Doing It
Parents don’t tend to want to do CIO. And, why would they? There are alllll of the negatives discussed above PLUS it’s incredibly stressful and exhausting. As parents, and especially Mothers…we are biologically hardwired to react when our babies cry! This is adaptive genetics at its finest and it’s basically so we don’t end up abandoning our child and leaving them to the wolves in the wild whenever we need a break. Thus, it is incredibly hard to listen to a child cry while doing nothing.
No parent really wants this. They just want to to know that their child is normal, that they are doing the right thing as parents AND of course they want to feel more rested
And if all of that is not enough, here is my last point. I should have probably mentioned it first, because it’s an important one that I don’t think many parents realise.
10) You can help your child sleep better WITHOUT sleep training!
And that my friends is what I have based my business on. All of the ways to help families get rest that are in tune with normal, biological sleep requirements, attachment theory, positive parenting practices, maternal mental health and and family wellness.
Not only is it possible, but most parents prefer this to sleep training.
Gradisar, M., Jackson, K., Spurrier, N. J., Gibson, J., Whitham, J., Williams, A. S., … & Kennaway, D. J. (2016). Behavioral interventions for infant sleep problems: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics, 137(6), e20151486.
Hiscock, H., Bayer, J. K., Hampton, A., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Wake, M. (2008). Long-term mother and child mental health effects of a population-based infant sleep intervention: cluster-randomized, controlled trial. Pediatrics, 122(3), e621-e627.
Middlemiss, W., Granger, D. A., Goldberg, W. A., & Nathans, L. (2012). Asynchrony of mother–infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early human development, 88(4), 227-232.
Price, A. M., Wake, M., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Hiscock, H. (2012). Five-year follow-up of harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep intervention: randomized trial. Pediatrics, 130(4), 643-651.
Simons, S. S., Cillessen, A. H., & de Weerth, C. (2017). Associations between circadian and stress response cortisol in children. Stress, 20(1), 69-75.
It’s late. You’re tired. They’re tired. Everyone is tired. Your patience is gone and you feel the anger and resentment rushing through your veins.
“Just go the *#@% to sleep”
“Why wont you sleep!?”
These are words I have said to myself…many times! (twins are hard LOL)
It is in these moments that our insecurities run wild. Our anger flicks a switch inside our brains (ever heard of the amygdala!?) and our “animal brain” takes over. This causes us to act instinctively rather than consciously. In fact, it is ridiculously difficult to think rationally when we are experiencing big emotions like anger, resentment, and defeat.
Bedtime turns into a battle, and we feel incredible pressure to win. We ‘must’ win!
We worry that if we give in, if we lose that battle, then…
We will be seen as weak parents
Our children will walk all over us
They will never go to sleep
Evenings will be ruined F-O-R-E-V-E-R…..and
You’ll end up with a codependent adult child living with you until they’re 40!
But herein lies the problem. These are irrational thoughts.
It’s a vicious circle really. Our culture, and social norms are part to blame (but that is a whole other blog!)
Even just using the language “bedtime battle” can set this tone. Psychology tells us that our language choices matter. Speaking positively, you are more likely to feel positively and so on.
The phrase bedtime battle implies a conflict, that we are at war against our children. It implies that, as parents, we need to win (we are bigger and stronger right?). Which naturally leads to resentment and insecurities, as listed above.
What is worse, it goes against the serve & return nurture sequence that we know is so important to child development and also risks breaking attachment – both of which are suuuper important for long term health and quality of life.
So I try to avoid using the term bedtime battle (or even the nap equivalent of “fighting naps”) whenever I am talking with parents. And, I encourage you to take a look at your vocabulary too.
Why? Well because we are not at war with our children. And, I think it is safe to say that no-one wants to step onto the battlefield on a daily (or even weekly) basis.
So how do we make peace?
The answer my friend, lies in prevention, connection, and planning
This piece is all about setting the stage for sleep.
Often bedtime can become difficult simply because the child is not tired enough. Think about it for a minute. What would happen if you went to bed when you weren’t tired? You would probably toss and turn, you might pick up your phone or turn on the TV. Maybe you’d even get back up and try again later.
Have you ever tried to fall asleep with someone yelling at you to go to sleep? Exactly. LOL
Knowing basic sleep biology is important here.
We have two main sleep forces. Our circadian rhythm is determined by the sun, our daily routine and to some degree our genetics. We also have our sleep drive (sometimes called sleep pressure).
In order to get good and sleepy both of these factors need to be paired in a sort of harmony.
Perhaps, the biggest thing that comes into play for kiddies is sleep pressure. Think of it like a balloon. We need that balloon to be full come bedtime, or there will be no pressure to help push that child into dreamland. If you’ve got a floppy weakly inflated balloon, there will be no push for sleep.
Ideally, the sleep pressure balloon will be linked in time with the circadian rhythm because this is what is responsible for the release of our natural sleepy chemicals like melatonin.
Too much daytime sleep, or poorly timed naps can lead to bedtime resistance simply because they are not tired enough to sleep. So can lazy days i.e. not enough exercise or activity. Or not enough stimulation. Babies, toddlers and kids of all ages need to be learning and moving! Their brains and bodies are developing at such a fast rate. They thrive on this.
(On a side note – I have never met a kid who is getting too much exercise. Hint hint LOL)
Often parents are stressed, and try to make life scheduled, calm, and predictable. While it is true that little ones (and parents) thrive on routine, it can also get a bit boring. They neeeeeed stimulation. Too much of the same, and well…you just plain don’t tire them out enough.
Ever notice how well they sleep on the days you go on a day-trip (even if you spent half the day in the car)? What about on the days where you go somewhere new? This is why!
Of course the opposite can be true. Overtiredness happens too. However, I hesitated even writing this here. Why? Well because overtiredness has become a sort of buzz word in the sleep community. It is treated sort of like a scapegoat. All sleep problems seem to be blamed on overtiredness, with a recommendation to extend naps, or move bedtime earlier. Unfortunately it is a whole lot more complicated than this.
It is true that the human body produces increased cortisol (the awake hormone) to counteract that inflating balloon, especially as the balloon starts growing too big. It is also true that increased cortisol can make it more difficult to sleep, and can lead to a poorer quality of sleep too. Kids can get sort of wired and hyper. And, trust me, it is much easier to just let that phase pass, than to convince a squirmy child to lay still. LOL I call it ‘bedtime bonkers.’
All of this is true. Science tells us so…
I want to highlight that society’s expectation of sleep needs ALSO differs VASTLY from what the research shows. Believe it or not, but it is NOT normal for kids to sleep 12 hours a night.
My best advice here…Pay attention to your child! Their behaviour is more indicative of their sleep needs than any chart you will find.
This section is all about connection. Maintaining that peace. (and for those of you who have been in the trenches for a while….making amends and starting fresh)
For many littles, bedtime is the one time of the day, where they get their parent’s undivided attention. This is especially true for working parents.
When you think about it this way, why would they want to go to bed? They want to spend time with YOU – all of you!
I hear about this a lot from Moms as they transition back to work after maternity leave. Often bedtimes become difficult and night waking increases. A lot of times this is when parents start bed-sharing (if they haven’t already) as this is a way to connect with our children.
One way around this is to boost our connection during the day.
Now, I am not meaning to overwhelm you by implying you have to spend massive amounts of uninterrupted 1:1 time with your child all day, every day. (Though it would be amazing if you could!)
But, you can make a world of difference by intentionally chunking your time. Try to have a couple of small 15 minute blitzes where you focus on connecting with your child. Involve them in your activities. Engage them in conversation. Look in their eyes. Cuddle their soft skin.
Believe it or not, but this actually can improve sleep!
So what does planning have to do with bedtime?
I think we can all agree that life is easier when we are prepared right? When you have a plan, and you know what to expect, there are a lot less unknowns. It’s easier to stay on track.
If you know that bedtime takes forever, plan for it. Plan for an easy and relaxed night.
It’s all about the little things
If you are relaxed, your child is more likely to relax.
If you have had nothing but difficult bedtimes lately consider clearing your evening commitments so that you don’t feel rushed. No, not forever, but this process takes some time and it works best when you give it your best shot.
This wisdom has been passed down by my own Mom. She has always said that the days go easier when you don’t have an agenda . This message cannot be truer.
It is always on the days where I am feeling pressured to do something, to be somewhere, to get the house clean, to do something – anything! It’s always these times that I become most frustrated, angry or resentful of my boys when things don’t go according to plan.
So just let it go!
Live in the moment.
I find it helps to ask myself. Will this matter tomorrow? A week from now? A year from now?
If not…then it’s probably best to just let it go!
Okay back to more planning stuff…
Plan a nice relaxing evening. No, not the whole evening (kids have a lot of energy to burn and we don’t want to stop that balloon from inflating), but an hour before bed is a good place to start. Think of some activities that you can do together (remember that connection piece we talked about earlier). Puzzles, colouring or blocks work well
Cut the screens (yes this includes the TV). Dim the lights and throw some Gentle Baby Essential Oil Blend into the difffuser. This helps let your bodies unwind and know that sleepy time is near.
Then as you prep for bedtime make sure YOU are ready.
Run through your own internal checklist (or write it down if that is more your style)
Have you have eaten dinner (we don’t want you hangry)
Are you calm? If not take a minute (or a few) to help get you there
Oh and make sure that your bladder is empty (cuz having to pee will make anyone a little rushed! LOL)
The next step is to start the bedtime routine.
You probably already have a bedtime routine with your child, whether you realize it or not…
A bedtime routine is simply the list of things that you do to get ready for bed. As parents, we tend to kiss our children and or say things like sweet dreams. Some of us sing a song, or read a story.
It sounds simple, and it can be. But it can also work against you if not done correctly. It’s a very misunderstood and underutilized strategy for improving and maintaining a healthy sleep pattern.
You know what, scratch that. Just download the guide. Even if you have an amazing bedtime routine, my guess is that you’ll learn something to make it even better!
Now, before I go, a quick disclaimer. These are all important factors in a healthy bedtime, but they are not the only variables. If after incorporating some of these tips and tricks, you find that you are still having problems, then please reach out to a professional for help. Sleep doesn’t have to be a battle.