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The Basics of Kids’ Sleep and Bedtimes by Age

Bedtime, for many parents, is something akin to a daily recurring nightmare. Whether your kid is a Screamer, Procrastinator, or Negotiator, getting through this part of the day can feel insurmountable… every single day.

The good news is that a reasonably easy bedtime routine is achievable, and though some kids will invent any excuse — including a thousandth cup of water — not to say goodnight, the truth is that they thrive on consistent and predictable bedtimes. If you create the right bedtime environment, they will sleep.  The bad news is that it requires some consistency and energy on parents’ part, especially initially.

How much sleep do children need?

Below, we list the recommended guidelines for sleep requirements by age. Keep in mind that there is natural variability between children, so if your child sleeps less than the norm and still seems well-rested and happy, you may comfortably assume that you child falls outside of the normal guidelines. However, these guidelines do illustrate the average quantity of sleep that is required for age-appropriate rest, which is vitally important for brain development.

While it’s tempting to subscribe to the notion that routine and regular bedtimes are too rigid and restrictive (for kids as well as their parents!), there is plenty of evidence to suggest that late or inconsistent bedtimes lead to a variety of behavioral issues. Earlier sleep tends to be more restorative and, perhaps counterintuitively, kids who go to sleep earlier fall asleep faster and and stay asleep longer.

  • Newborns + Infants (0 to 1 years): 12-13 hours of night sleep (not including the daytime naps that are essential for this age group)
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  • Toddlers + Preschoolers (1 to 4 years): 10-12 hours of night sleep
  • School age (5 to 10 years): 10-11 hours of night sleep
  • Tween + Teen: 9+ hours of night sleep

When it comes to setting bedtimes, use these amounts to guide you, counting back from when the child needs to awake in the morning and/or taking into consideration when you observe your child becoming fatigued in the evening — which may not appear as you think. Responding to fatigue by falling asleep isn’t natural for babies and young children, who (counterintuitively) often become more excitable, cranky or poorly behaved the tireder they are. It’s easier for young children to fall asleep before these manifestations of fatigue appear, so again — early bedtimes are best.

How to enforce bedtimes for children

Hopefully, by now, you’re convinced that a regular and relatively early bedtime is good for your child, from a developmental and behavioral perspective. But how to you go about doing it, especially if your kid negotiates better than Denzel Washington in that (really awesome) bank heist movie?

Create a routine.

Bedtimes work best when there is a routine that creates good sleep hygiene. For example, once you’ve set an age-appropriate bedtime, look for effective ways to signal it’s time to wind down and sleep in the hour or half-hour leading up to it. Dim the bedroom lights, dial back activities that keep kids awake (like digital device use), direct them toward calm, quiet activities such as reading, and ensure the overall noise and stimulation and possibly even light around them decreases.

Most importantly, try to do the same sequence of bedtime-related activities every night, so there is a clear routine that’s associated with the message, “It’s closer and closer to sleepy time.”

Give yourself and your child time to settle into it.

It will not be miserable forever, but setting good bedtime habits does take time. Setting them is all about creating habit and routine; this doesn’t happen without time, so don’t expect the change to occur overnight.

If you’re attempting to establish a bedtime for preteens and teens, who might expect more say in their activities, it can be especially difficult. Consider enlisting them in the effort by explaining why sleep is so important for them and have them help create their bedtime routine. (And take into consideration when they get sleepy; if they are adolescents, their biological clock may naturally wind down later than yours.)

Stick to it.

As with all parenting endeavors, sticking to your guns is the only way to create consistency over time. When it comes to bedtimes, allowing for daily negotiation shows your child that you’re not really going to enforce any of the bedtime routines you’ve set up, so stick to the timings you’ve decided on. Despite their short-term protests, children thrive on early and consistent bedtimes. This is one of those times when what they may say they want is not necessarily what’s good for them.

Finally, there’s one more benefit to early bedtimes that the books don’t mention: more adult time in the evenings. This is one of those rare instances where what has been proven to be good for children is also wonderfully convenient for their parents as well. So take advantage.

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