Are you wondering… “What is a healthy bedtime? What time should kids go to sleep? How late is too late? How much sleep do kids need?”

These are questions that I get asked allllll the time as a children’s sleep specialist. 

For many parents, the countdown to bedtime starts the moment you crawl out of bed! 

We are just plain burnt out by the day’s end and need some quiet time! (am I right!? LOL)

The ideal bedtime allows for both enough sleep for your child and some free time for you, but choosing the right bedtime for your child can be tricky.

When bedtime is too late, you lose out on that precious free time, and your child may not cope well. But when bedtime is too early, your child may experience difficulties falling asleep, and might wake you up at an ungodly hour come morning. 

Add in crazy schedules, judgy family members, and naps – and it’s easy to see why parents struggle with choosing the right bedtime for their child (I do too at times!)

Ultimately, there’s no perfect bedtime, or easy one-size-fits-all answer because bedtime timing depends on so many things. 

This blog post dives deeper into what is normal, so that you can find the right bedtime for your child, considering things like your culture, your child’s sleep needs, and their individual quirks.

Why Sleep Matters for Kids

Sleep starts to play a larger role in your child’s physical and mental health as your child moves into toddlerhood and beyond. Sleep fuels their growth and development, strengthens their immune system, and helps them learn and regulate their emotions. 

While it’s rare that I work with a child who is truly “sleep-deprived”, and not meeting the daily recommended sleep requirements. Most kids – regardless of age – can become grumpy, have trouble concentrating, and experience behavioral issues when their sleep isn’t optimized or timed right.

Age-Appropriate Bedtimes

So what does science have to say about what time you should put your toddler 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 (meaning they studied these kids over time, in this case a year). They looked at cognition, and socioeconomic status, and a number of other things as well – like sleep totals, night wakes and bedtimes! 

So what did they find?

They discovered that actually, late bedtimes are pretty common… dare I say even normal Say…..what!?

On average, the kids within the study were not asleep until 9:30pm! (even though the average bedtime was 8:50pm) 

They also discovered something else…

Kids wake more, and sleep less than you think. 

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. 

What is interesting, is that 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. 

As you will see in the next section, this is WAY less than the recommended 10 to 13 hours of sleep (*in a 24 hour period) advised by the National Sleep Foundation for this age group. 

So, do kids need more sleep on average? Or is it that our sleep recommendations for kids are wrong? It’s a good question!

How much sleep do kids need?

While there’s no magic bedtime number, and a lot of variability between studies, here’s a general guideline of recommended sleep durations by age group, according to the National Sleep Foundation (which is the most utilized recommendations)

Normal Distribution The Bell Curve

Remember, these are just averages. Some kiddos might naturally need more or less sleep than their age group suggests. 

How much sleep do kids need featuring sleep duration recommendations chart.

Infants (0-12 months)

There is no best bedtime for a baby! It is more important to follow your baby’s sleep cues, like fussiness or zoning out and yawning, rather than imposing a rigid schedule.

In some cultures, babies stay up late and go to sleep when their parents go to bed. In other cultures, babies go to bed early, before their parents. There is no right or wrong. 

Toddlers (1-2 years old)

What time should toddlers go to bed? 

It’s more common for toddlers to have a late bedtime than most people realize. Toddlers might even sleep later than older siblings! 

It all depends on their nap – how long their nap is, what time their nap is etc. Toddlers typically need around 11-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, INCLUDING naps. 

They also need a good chunk of awake time after their nap or they won’t be tired at bedtime. Which means an 8:00 pm or 9:00 pm bedtime (or later) is pretty typical.

Related: How to Put 2 (or More) Kids to Bed at Night

Preschoolers (2-5 years old)

What time should a preschooler go to bed?

As toddlers transition to preschool, their sleep patterns often shift, and bedtime can become kinda unpredictable. This is largely due to naps, which start to become shorter or disappear altogether during this time. 

Preschoolers tend to need a bit less sleep than toddlers, around 10-13 hours in a 24-hour period on average, including naps. And so anything between 6:00 pm (on no nap days) and 9:00 pm or 10:00 pm (on nap days) is common. 

School-aged Children (6-12 years old)

What time should kindergarteners go to bed? What about older kids?

For school-aged children, consistent sleep schedules become increasingly important for academic performance and overall well-being. And by consistent, I don’t mean a consistent bedtime… I mean waking up at the same time everyday (even on weekends) 

Bedtimes for big kids depend on what time school starts (or what time they need to leave the house by). So plan your child’s morning wake up time – i.e. the time they must wake up in the morning to avoid the mad-rush! Then count the hours backwards until you come up with a bedtime that will allow your child to get the hours of sleep they need. 

Generally speaking, children at this age require around 9-11 hours of sleep. 

Factors Influencing Bed Times for Children (Beyond Just Age)

1. Individual Sleep Needs

Sleep recommendations can give you a pretty good estimate of how much sleep children may need (or not need) at any given age.  

But you can’t just look at a guideline chart, and know how much sleep YOUR child needs. There are a wide range of sleep timings that may also be acceptable or normal depending on the child.

To help you understand what this means in the sleep world, it’s worth taking a minute to remind you what averages mean (insert your math class flash back here!)

In science there is something called a bell curve, which is what statisticians and researchers use to plot data from large groups of people. It helps us to see and understand averages visually. 

When plotting data this way, “most people’ (about 90-95% of people) will cluster pretty close to the “average”. This 90-95% is generally thought of as “normal.”

Whereas, “some people” – the 2.5-5% on either end of the curve – will naturally fall either 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. 

The average height of women in the United States is 5 foot 4 inches. But I would still consider myself to be of pretty normal height at 5 foot 7 inches. (still with me?)

When we think about sleep this makes sense. 

Some kids will naturally need more sleep than others. And that’s okay. 

When it comes to bedtime, some kids will have naturally early bedtimes, and others will have later bedtimes… but most will fall asleep around the same time (assuming they’re of a similar age and culture) 

2. Activity Levels 

One other thing to keep in mind here, is that your child’s sleep is an average too. They’re not likely to sleep the exact same amount of minutes or hours each night.

We all have good nights, and bad nights – Kids are no different!

This is largely because every day is different. We have active days, and lazy days. Boring days, and busy or stimulating days. Days where we sleep in, and days where we wake early. You get the picture

In general, children with high activity levels, who are kept busy tend to burn more energy throughout the day, which can lead to them needing more sleep at night.

It’s always best to stop and think about what their day was like, and how your child has slept over the last week or last month before freaking out that your child slept poorly or was up late. It usually averages out. 

3. Naps and Late Bedtimes 

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. Timing bedtime does have a lot to do with naps

If your child has a really long nap, or naps late into the day, then they might not be tired enough to fall asleep quickly and easily at bedtime, which can result in a later bedtime than you’d like. 

Where the problem lies, is that many parents end up dropping the nap too soon. This often comes from a fear or worry that their child is up too late.  

But actually, naps for toddlers and preschoolers have a lot of benefits as well – despite being under utilized in Western society!

Whether to nap, cap the nap, or drop the nap is an individual question. Ultimately it comes down to whether your child can tolerate a dropped nap. 

Many kids get cranky, wired, or emotional. Dropping the nap too soon can also cause an increase in night wakes.

4. Cultural Considerations

In some cultures, later bedtimes are the norm for little ones. But in Western society, those evening hours often feel sacred. I think it has to do with the fact that we are such a fast paced, high achieving society. We need time to unwind after a long day!

5. Giftedness & Neurodiversity

For gifted and neurodiverse children, their brains are wired differently for sleep, and so their sleep needs can be a bit different. They tend to fall on the lower end of the recommended spectrum. 

This might mean they fall asleep later at night, but can still get the recommended amount of sleep for their age group. Or that they wake up earlier in the morning than their peers. 

Try to find a bedtime and wake-up time that aligns with their natural energy levels. 

Gifted and neurodiverse children can sometimes have challenges with falling asleep as well. They can be especially curious and active thinkers, and can also experience sensory challenges making it harder to wind down and prepare for sleep. Establishing a consistent bedtime routine is key. 

6. Seasonal Shifts & Sunlight 

Sunlight (and light in general) plays a big role with sleep, so much so that bedtime timing can actually change with the searson! 

As the days grow shorter in winter, and darkness comes sooner, that shift in natural light prompts our bodies to produce melatonin (a hormone that tells your body it’s time for sleep) earlier, making an earlier bedtime more likely. Whereas, summer’s longer days can delay melatonin production, bringing later bedtimes (especially when school’s out!). 

Artificial light emitted from electronic devices like TVs, tablets, and smartphones (aka “blue light”) can also impact bedtime timing because it interferes with the release of melatonin, making it harder for your child to get sleepy. Some children manage to fall asleep fine after exposure to blue light because they are good and tired from a long day (their sleep pressure is maxed out!) However, exposure to blue light before bed can decrease sleep quality.

It helps to keep your child’s bedroom dark, quiet, cool, and clutter-free, and to turn off all electronic devices for at least one hour before bed (though 2+ hours provides the most benefit). This will signal to their body that it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep. 

Troubleshooting Common Bedtime Issues

Missed Nap / Early Bedtime

We’ve talked a lot about late bedtimes, but what about early bedtimes? Is there such a thing as too early for bed?

So if you’re reading this and wondering if 6pm is too early for toddler bedtime? In most cases yes. Unless – your toddler missed their nap. When early bedtimes happen more as a once-off occurrence, like following a skipped nap, many kids will continue to wake up at their regular time. 

If you’ve got an easy-going, high sleep needs kiddo, an early bedtime may also be appropriate. But for most toddlers and kids, a regular early bedtime is likely to result in a regular early wake up. 

So if your toddler regularly falls asleep at 6:00 pm… you might find they may sleep until 6:00 am (if you’re lucky)… but they’ll likely wake earlier! (Remember a 2 year old only needs about 10-13 hours of sleep a day, and that includes naps)

Late Bedtime? How to Change to an Earlier Bedtime

If your toddler wakes too early in the morning, has a hard time falling asleep, or wakes up at night, you’ve probably been told to put them to bed earlier. This is something I hear a lot. 

The recommendation to put a child to bed earlier often stems from the “sleep begets sleep” concept. This idea suggests that the more sleep a child gets, the better they’ll sleep later. It’s rooted in the observation of overtiredness. Often when littles stay awake for too long, they experience fragmented sleep (waking up lots overnight), false starts (waking up close to bedtime), and shorter naps.

And an early bedtime can help… sometimes. But there’s a couple of problems with this. 

First: “Sleep begets sleep” it’s not entirely accurate. Sleep spacing DOES matter – BUT there is a limit to how much one can sleep in a day. Before shifting to an earlier bedtime, it’s helpful to know how much sleep your child needs. 

Most of the kiddos that make their way to my private practice only sleep about 10 or 10.5 hours a night. And so if you put these kids to bed at 7:00pm, they’re likely to wake up at 5:00am (which is fine if you’re an early bird – but I am not!)

Second: Changing to an earlier bedtime can be tricky – especially if you’re stuck in a rut of late bedtimes! It’s next to impossible to make a child fall asleep if they’re not tired. So timing is key.  

Focus on having them fall asleep quickly and easily first. Then once you find a “mostly” consistent bed time, try adjusting their sleep schedule in small increments. Don’t make drastic changes all at once or they aren’t likely to fall asleep easily. 

Related: Is My Toddler Going Through a 2-Year Regression?

Taking A Long Time to Fall Asleep

What time should kids go to sleep featuring child sleeping in wagon.

If your toddler takes an hour to fall asleep at bedtime (or more!) – you are not alone!

What you might not realize is… When bedtime is optimized, you can get your toddler or preschooler to bed in UNDER an hour – all the way from the start of the bedtime routine, to the point where they are fast asleep. (Less if you’re able to walk out of that bedroom before they’ve fallen asleep.)

There are a lot of reasons a child can take a long time falling asleep, but it’s usually related to timing. 

This could be because bedtime is too early? Or that bedtime is too late, and your child has got a second wind. 

For napping kiddos, they might need more awake time – generally a good 4-7 hours spent awake after their nap to be tired enough to fall asleep quickly and easily. 

I see this a lot with preschoolers especially. If your child is still napping, you may find you need to wake them up earlier, or limit their nap to 1 to 1.5 hours if you don’t want to be up until 10 pm or midnight waiting for them to fall asleep!

Timing aside, other reasons that kids take a long time to fall asleep include:

  • – Being stimulated from screen time before bed
  • – Needing to fill their cup (they want more time with you!)
  • – Needing time to off load the day
  • – Having troubles winding down 

Conclusion: What Time Should Kids Go To Sleep? 

The take home message here is – There’s no magic bedtime!

Sleep needs vary by child, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s completely normal and perfectly healthy to find a bedtime that works for everyone (including you!)

Remember, flexibility is key. Your sweet spot might shift from night to night, and that’s okay – because toddlers!

So the next time you “fight” to get your child to sleep on time, so that you can enjoy that glass of vino in peace and solitude please keep all of this wonderful knowledge in mind.

Focus on what matters most. When your child is happy, healthy, and thriving, you probably have nothing to worry about. But if you have concerns, then reach out and I will give you an honest opinion of whether I can help, and together we can decide what time that you should put your kid to bed.

Oh any by the way, I have a FREE bedtime guide! 

Need more support Check out my holistic sleep coaching and support services here!

Together we can get your kiddo sleeping quickly and peacefully

XO Maisie

References:

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.