The Question: What time should I put my child to bed at night?
As clinical psychologists working in the area of pediatric sleep, this question has been asked of us countless times. In practice, we often see that bedtimes that are too early result in a variety of problems. Research shows that a calming and predictable bedtime routine is important to help children fall asleep quickly and with little resistance. Perhaps, even more important is a well-timed and age-appropriate bedtime.
Clinical practice guidelines outline that bedtime for young children be in the range of 6:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thus, a bedtime of no earlier than 6:45 p.m. is recommended and, for most kids, a bedtime of no later than 8:30 p.m. is generally recommended to ensure they get the sleep they need.
Many parents may be tempted to put their child to bed earlier than 6:45pm; if for example, their child appears tired because she is not napping well or if the wakeful time between the last nap and bedtime is long. However, a bedtime that is too early can lead to various sleep problems including difficulty falling asleep, delayed sleep onset, night wakings which can be prolonged, and early morning wakings – just to name a few! All of which can lead to a lot of unnecessary crying, fussing, and wakefulness on the part of the child, as well as distress on the part of the parent.
Consider the following examples – the infant who is napping three times a day, the toddler who is napping twice a day, and the preschooler who is napping once a day. These children may benefit from a bedtime between 7:30pm and 8:30pm to ensure that they are tired enough (and their drive to sleep strong enough) when put to bed.
The total amount of nighttime sleep expected of young children is approximately 11-12 hours and not longer (see tables below for Recommended Sleep for Infants, Toddlers, & Preschoolers). From three to four months onwards until 18 months, nighttime sleep duration is 11–12 hours. However, from 18 months onwards, nighttime sleep duration is 10.5–11 hours until the daytime nap is eliminated. Thus, if a child goes to sleep for the night before 7:00 p.m., they likely may wake fully rested – and ready to start their day - before 6:00 a.m.
*Children may sleep longer at night after they drop their nap.
Source: Modified from The Sleep Easy Solution, 2007
In addition to ensuring that your child’s bedtime is well-timed, it is important that a child’s time in bed (or crib) be limited to his sleep need. For healthy sleep practices, the time spent in bed, for the most part, is spent asleep. Having too much wakeful time in bed can lead to an increase in crying and fussing and, also, the child may learn to associate the crib with being awake. Thus, keeping a child in bed for too long has numerous negative consequences on sleep and is not recommended.
When determining your child’s bedtime, consider his age, the amount of time he needs to be awake between sleep periods including before bed, and the time he and you are most comfortable beginning the day. Pleasant Dreams!
Dr. Pamela Mitelman is a Montreal-based Licensed Clinical Psychologist working in private practice. More information about Dr. Mitelman can be found at www.drpamelamitelman.com.
Dr. Nicky Cohen is a Registered Psychologist in private practice in Toronto. More information about Dr. Cohen’s work can be found at www.nickycohen.com.