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How To Find The Perfect Sleep Schedule For Children | Setting the Right Bedtime

ages 0 - 6 months ages 11 years - 18 years ages 5 years - 11 years ages 6 months - 5 years consistency milestones routines siblings sleep Aug 24, 2023


When it comes to Consistency, I’ve talked about bedtime routines (see Master Your Child’s Bedtime Routine) and creating a sleep-friendly bedroom environment (see Is Your Child’s Room Conducive With Sleep?).  Those are the first two steps in my four-part sleep hygiene series - that is, the environment and daily routines that create consistent, uninterrupted sleep, which is pretty much every parent’s goal.


Bedtime falls under the Consistency category in my 5 C’s parenting framework (see The 5 C’s to Amazing Parenting).  Young children’s lives are all about change.  Every day they’re growing, constantly learning new things, and being exposed to new people and new environments.  This is all wonderful and necessary for their development.  As parents, we can help our little ones to best integrate all this new information by providing as much consistency in their lives as possible.  This covers everything from their daily routines to their bedtime schedules to what they eat daily.  Kids thrive on consistency, and I can teach you some simple strategies to set your kids up for success by adding consistency throughout your parenting practice.


Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial for your child’s overall health and development.  When kids get a sufficient amount of sleep, they achieve proper growth spurts, cognitive development, learning and memory, boosts in immune function, and improved emotional well-being.  Ensuring your child is getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best ways you can help them to thrive.


Today we will focus on the actual time your child goes to sleep, a.k.a. bedtime.  Think back on the last 5 days and what time your kids went to bed.  Now I mean actually closed their eyes in a quiet and dark room.  Think about it.  Not what time they started brushing their teeth.  Not what time you finished the last bedtime story.  When did they actually start to fall asleep?


Was there more than a 15-minute range in those times across the week?  If not, congratulations; you are already doing a great job being consistent in this aspect of your child’s bedtime routine.  But if you reflect back and your child’s bedtime varied by more than 15 minutes, chances are your child could benefit from this lesson in Consistency.  


If you vary children’s bedtimes frequently or let them decide on their own what time to go to bed, you’re likely going to pay for it in their mood and behavior the next day or, even two days later, when their fatigue really catches up with them. 


This is especially important for younger children, but I’ll tell you, it holds up as they grow too.  If I look back on the past week for my 14-year-old, there was only 1 night when their bedtime varied by more than 15 minutes.  That was a conscientious decision that was made in advance when we decided to watch a Big Kid movie after the younger kids went to bed, and this type of variation can be managed at that age.


Older kids in this 5 to 11 age range can tolerate staying up a little later when a friend or family member is visiting from out of town or for a special party that runs a little later than their normal bedtime.  But really try to limit it to one night a week at most so they don’t fall behind on that precious sleep.


Why is going to bed at the same time every night helpful?  Consistency is the key to your circadian rhythm.  Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock.  By establishing a consistent bedtime, you are training your body to release the hormone melatonin at that time of night, which helps your body start to feel drowsy and promotes a better night’s sleep.  Grown-ups and children alike benefit from a consistent bedtime.


So what time are you putting your kids to bed?  Last year I was at a birthday party and somehow got to talking to a Dad about bedtime, and you should have seen how big his eyes got when I told him my then 13-year-old went to bed at 9 pm.  I’m not sure his 4-year-old was in bed by that time.  


But you’ve got to think about the sleep needs of these kids.  Let’s break this down by age.  An early and consistent bedtime should be developed within the first 2-3 months after birth, firmly established by around 6-9 months, and tweaked here and there as developmental milestones are encountered (e.g., when a child stops napping).


Sleep needs change with age.  The recommended bedtime for children under age 5 is between 7:00 pm and 8:30 pm, with a total sleep duration of 10 to 14 hours.  That duration includes naps if your child is still napping.


In the 5 to 11-year range, kids still need 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night.  A reasonable bedtime would be between 7:30 pm and 9:00 pm.  Getting enough sleep is necessary for them to have improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, and overall mental and physical health.


Teenagers are recommended to get 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night, with a bedtime range between 8:30 pm and 10:30 pm, depending on their school start time and extracurricular activities.  It is important for teens to prioritize sufficient sleep for their overall health, cognitive function, and emotional well-being.


All of these recommendations vary based on children’s individual sleep needs and daily schedules, so don’t get too caught up on a specific number.  Rather, observe your child’s energy level, mood, and signs of fatigue (e.g., yawning, the thousand-yard stare, “ramping up” behavior).  Use these recommendations and guidelines to get a better idea of how much sleep your child needs.  I always err on the side of caution and schedule closer to the maximum sleep time for my children, knowing that a little quiet time lying in bed in the morning is just fine.


Schools are getting better about having later start times to accommodate children’s natural sleep schedules.  But think about what time your child’s school starts and what time you need to leave the house to get there.  Then backtrack based on how long it takes to calmly get ready, have breakfast, and pack up their school bag.  Then add at least a half-hour buffer for days when they’re really tired and sleep in because you don’t want to wake them up to get ready for school.  Then rewind another 9 to 11 hours, depending on how long your child needs to sleep to feel fully rested.  That ends up being a pretty early bedtime.


Establishing a consistent bedtime routine and ensuring enough sleep is crucial for your child’s physical and mental well-being.  We have always prioritized sleep and an early bedtime for our children.  As our family grew and our children started to share rooms, we started using a staggered bedtime: The youngest child goes to bed and then, 15 minutes later, is followed by the next oldest child, then 15 minutes later is followed by the next oldest child.  For reference, when they were ages 1, 3, 5, and 7, their bedtimes were 7 pm, 7:15 pm, 7:30 pm, and 7:45 pm.  The 1-year-old also took a 90-minute nap during the day.  I pay close attention to the clock, and we are rarely off by more than a few minutes during bedtime.  When your kids are young, try to make it a priority to start dinner early to be more relaxed during the bedtime routine and still keep to an early schedule.


I am a big fan of adjusting bedtimes based on a 15-minute increment.  If I notice that my children are 1) taking longer than usual to fall asleep, 2) waking up earlier than usual, or 3) asking for a later bedtime, I consider altering their bedtime by 15-minute increments.  You can always push bedtime back later, but once you go later, it’s tough to return to an earlier time unless they are ill, stayed up late the night or two before, or have had a really active day.


Take a moment to think about your child’s bedtime and whether you’ve ever noticed any changes in their mood or energy level related to their bedtime.  Think about their morning timeline and backtrack to allow enough sleep for their growing bodies based on the age recommendations listed above.  Then, make a commitment to an early bedtime and relish in the rested, stable behavior you notice.


Bedtime is part of the Consistency category in my 5 C’s parenting framework (see The 5 C’s to Amazing Parenting).  To view more posts in this category, use the category search menu on the right of your screen.  Keep up the good work on your amazing parenting journey!

P.S. If you have a healthy infant or toddler who is still waking during the night and the idea of getting a good night’s sleep sounds like a dream come true, be sure to check out the step-by-step sleep training process presented in my Masterclass: Sleep Training.  You'll learn everything you need to know to get your child sleeping through the night!

You’ll also want to check out my Treasures - Sleep Training page for a select group of products designed to simplify the sleep training process for parents and children.


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