Every parent knows the vital importance of good sleep—for us, yes, but especially for our kids. Adults don’t like to be exhausted but we can, for the most part, power through our day on less-than-adequate sleep. Our kids, however, cannot. Their growing bodies rely on good sleep for their mental and physical health, their ability to focus and be successful in school, their overall behavior, and their capacity to regulate their emotions.
Even so, you may have noticed they don’t particularly want to go to bed, perhaps out of fear they will miss out on the fun things you must be doing once they’re asleep. In fact, bedtime often represents the most frenetic time of day, when their energy level suddenly soars and their brains go into overdrive. They’re got one more question to ask, one more book to plead for, and seven more sips of water to take.
The whole process can be so draining that you may actually consider ditching the traditional notion of “bedtime” altogether, as this desperate parent did before writing to Scary Mommy to ask for advice for getting back on track:
I have three kids: 7, 5, and 2. Bedtime has become such a struggle around here between the fighting, the stalling, the whining, the 100 questions per kid, the endless tucking in, the inevitable request for water or another pee before bed…I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t. No matter what my partner and I do, bedtime takes forever and with three kids at different ages who all need different things, we feel pulled in too many directions. Recently, I just gave up completely. I let them all stay up (with the exception of the two-year-old, who is an absolute bear if she doesn’t get to bed at a decent time), play on their tablets, read books, and just go to bed when they want.
Most of us can relate to that sentiment (fine, screw it, stay up until you collapse!), but we also know we have to—or should—maintain as consistent a bedtime routine as possible. But how do you know what bedtime is the right bedtime? The answer is: It depends. It depends on their age, when they naturally wake up (or have to wake up), and where they fall on the spectrum of tends-to-need-more versus does-fine-with-a-little-less.
First, let’s start with the recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, which are also endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Infants 4 months to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
- Children 1 to 2 years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
- Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
- Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
- Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
Because the amount of sleep a child needs is cumulative over a total 24 hour day, this chart tells us what we instinctually already knew—when our kids sleep more during the day, they can stay up a little later at nighttime and be okay. When they start dropping naps, you might need to inch bedtime up earlier to make up for those lost hours.
This is why, when my son stopped napping at day care, it was a mad rush to get him picked up, fed, and bathed before he would completely melt down. On the weekends, though, he’d take these luxuriously long naps and could stay up a little later.
It also depends on whether they’re naturally early risers—or whether they’d like to sleep in but your school or work schedules mean you have to pull them out of bed. Just like with adults, if that alarm needs to be set extra early for tomorrow, you’re probably better off turning in early, too.
So let’s say your three-year-old, who needs 10-13 hours of sleep, normally wakes up around 6:30 a.m. and takes a one-hour nap. A good bedtime falls between 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.—but probably closer to the 6:30 p.m. mark, because they’re on the younger side of the three- to five-year-old age range. Siblings who are close in age—say, within 2-3 years of each other—can probably have the same bedtime since the recommended time varies so widely. Kids with bigger age gaps, however, may need to have tiered bedtimes to get everyone the full rest they need.
Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of actually getting them to bed, but the Scary Mommy team had good advice for tightening up that frazzled parent’s routine:
Here’s what you can do. After pj’s and brushing teeth, each child gets to ask one question—maybe they’ll spend time thinking about what they really want to ask instead of bombarding you at bedtime. Read one chapter of a book both of your big kids will enjoy (the Wayside School series, Amelia Bedelia, and Captain Underpants, etc.) instead of book after book after book for each kid. Allow some flexibility with things like having to go pee, of course. But have them fill up little cups or bottles of water to carry up to their rooms ahead of time so it’s already there.
Here are some other bedtime hacks we’ve suggested in the past:
And if all else fails, it’s probably also okay to let your kids stay up a bit past their bedtime to read if that helps them wind down and makes the process go a little smoother.