Child-Led Bedtimes

Carmen's little one, Marley, naps contentedly. You can find Carmen at www.facebook.com/rockstarconfections.

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

I work full-time, and my daughter goes to a preschool in the mornings. I usually get home at 6:00pm, and after dinner, all my daughter wants to do is play/read/play.

We start bedtime at 8:00-8:30pm, but it often takes an hour or more, so she is out by 9:30-10:00pm. Her pediatrician has told me that I should put her in bed earlier. Bath, massages, soft music – none of them work for us!

She turned three years old in December, 2010. She’s very talkative and keeps busy most of the day. I honestly have no problems letting her sleep late, but I am worried because we are not following the pediatrician’s advice.

Should we continue following her lead and bedtime cues?

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Mandy: I think this is a question you have to ask yourself. Others (friends, family, doctors, and authors) can be a valuable resource (or not, dependent upon the situation). In the end, we have to trust ourselves to make the best decisions for our families. Is your current sleeping arrangement and time working for everyone? Is your daughter getting enough sleep? If the answer is yes to both of those questions, I would see no point in changing anything.

We strive to have our children follow their bodies’ cues. We want to help them recognize when they are tired and go to sleep accordingly. In doing so, we don’t have a set bedtime, but there generally seems to be a pattern which naturally occurs. That pattern changes periodically with our current activities and interests. I can also see a direct correlation to my husband’s work schedule. If my husband, who works out of our home, is getting up and staying up later, the kids will naturally shift their patterns in order to spend more time with him. If he switches to getting up earlier and going to bed earlier to accommodate his work schedule, everyone tends to shift. They need to have time to connect with him. At times, this has meant that our children have stayed up past midnight and slept later in the morning.

As for how long it takes to get her to sleep, I often hear concerns from parents who think that a one hour transition to bedtime is a really long time. Bedtime takes an hour at our house, too, with four kids ages 8, 6, 3, and 7 months. One hour seems like a very average time period for a person to calm down and relax for sleep. Even before having kids, I always read for at least an hour before bed. I think the key is to make that hour an enjoyable one for everyone involved. I tend to read good chapter books to our children when they are showing signs of being tired. It’s a relaxing, enjoyable activity for all of us.

Jenn: I want to preface this by saying I am not anti-pediatrician. However, I have noticed a growing trend of pediatricians offering what I would consider parenting advice. They have every right to do this, but you should keep in mind that a pediatrician’s opinion – just like a book or a blog post – is merely advice. Ultimately, as an educated parent who spends each day with your child, you know what is best.

My biggest concern about parenting advice from doctors is that it can sometimes come across as instructions to follow rather than guidance or opinion. If your daughter is thriving, well-rested, and you have no reason to need her in bed earlier, than I don’t see any reason to force her to bed at 8:30. It sounds like you both just want some time together before bedtime, and that’s perfectly natural.

Stacy: I think it is important to follow-up on information we receive from others by doing more research and by checking in with ourselves about it. So, the same goes for the information I am going to give you!

You don’t say what time your daughter gets up or whether she naps, but I got the feeling from your description of her as talkative and busy that she is content and not overtired. But you know best! By keeping her behavior and your family’s needs in mind, I think you know better than I or the pediatrician about your daughter’s needs and how to meet them.

I personally know families who have elaborate bedtime rituals and families that pretty much brush their teeth and hop under the covers. I know families whose kids have lights out at 7 PM and families that all go to bed at 1 AM (they homeschool and get up later). When I went online to do a bit of research about your question, I found experts who said kids should be in bed by a certain time and some who said to use the bed time that works for your family; some who said do this routine and others who said do that routine. I couldn’t find any consensus.

If it helps, I can give you an example from our house: My four-year-old gets in bed between 8:30 and 9:30 PM, and he sometimes doesn’t fall asleep until 10 PM or later. He wakes up between 7 and 8 AM most days. He stopped napping regularly a few months ago. If there are days when he seems especially tired, I might take him for a drive or encourage him to lie down and read books together; or I might try to get us in bed a bit earlier. Other ideas . . . having a “quiet time” in the afternoons or letting him sleep late on the weekends, etc. But I wouldn’t make a drastic change in our routine unless I thought he were seriously struggling on a regular basis.

So, the things I would be keeping in mind are:

  • whether the child is able to get through the day without being overtired
  • what works for the family
  • and, for reference only, the recommended amount of sleep based on age. For a three-year-old, it is 10-14 hours in a 24-hour period, including naps. (This is combined information from The National Sleep Foundation and Dr. Sears. But, most importantly, this is an average recommendation, and sleep needs are individual.)

I am not sure if you want to follow-up with your pediatrician, but I were to do so, I would prefer to keep the conversation less about bedtime and routine and more about whether my child seemed well-rested to me, any concerns I had about sleep or behavior, and how many hours of sleep (on average) my child is getting. But it’s up to you. I know many parents who choose not to have conversations with their pediatrician about issues on which there is no professional consensus and that seem to be about parenting choices, particularly when they’ve done their research and know what is working for their family.

I encourage you to continue gathering information as needed and synthesizing it in a way that works for you. I wish you the best in continuing to meet your daughter’s needs, enjoying your evenings together, and doing the routine that works for both of you!

7 Responses to Child-Led Bedtimes

  1. Crystal - Prenatal Coach  

    Great post, thank you for your insights!

  2. Alicia C.  

    When my oldest (who will be 13 in a couple of weeks) was little, I worked second shift at a restaurant and his dad was a musician. Here’s how our average day went: Wake up a 10am, nap time at 3pm, Bed time between 12:30 and 1:30am. He was fine. He got the amount of sleep he needed. He’s smart and healthy. He’s in 8th grade now, and never has trouble getting up. In fact, he’s a *morning* person, despite his first six years’ sleeping habits.
    A ped who says she needs to go to bed earlier is the same as any nosy interloper who says the same thing. This doc should be adding up the hours of sleep and looking at the results (a healthy, happy kid) rather than making this kind of suggestion.

  3. Shannon

    Right now my almost 3 year old is happily playing by herself in her room. We have been encouraging her to wind herself down a little bit between stories and actual falling asleep time. Not only does it seem to not keep her awake longer, it helps her fall asleep faster when she finally is ready. She is also more likely to let me know when she wants an early nap.
    Unless your child is sleep deprived, I don’t think this should really be any of your doctor’s concern. There have been studies that show a correlation between early bedtimes and better health or intelligence, but I have yet to see one that actually proves that going to sleep early is a cause of any of those things.

  4. Jenny  

    thank you for this!! the insights are helpful and i love how it comes not only from 1 but several mentors

  5. Jessica Lang @ Cloth Diapering Mama  

    Great article and awesome insight from the NPN ladies :) My sons both “tell” me when its time for bed and always have. It is usually around the same time every night. Read their cues and it will be obvious when they are ready to settle down. I’ve tried set bed times and like the OP said, it can take 2 hours for that routine to work. Sometimes its tough to make sure they get enough sleep, but if given a nice relaxing environment and gentle encouragement my boys lead us to the family bed when they are ready :)

  6. Courtney  

    thanks for this article – i needed to see this today!

    everyone kept saying we needed a “real” bedtime and routine to keep our toddler grounded…well, after a week of doing the new routine, he figured out that A leads to B and B leads to sleep and rebelled – taking our former 30 min wind down period to 2+ hours. we finally scrapped the bedtime nonsense this week and are back to following his cues for when he is ready to sleep.

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