“What time does my baby/toddler need to go to bed?” is often one of the first questions I am asked by the parents I work with. My answer is always, “the earlier the better!"
Adjusting expectations for working parents.
Working parents initially tend to balk at my suggestion that their child’s bedtime should be between 6pm and 8pm, or even earlier than 6pm if their child did not nap well that day. Evening is when working parents tend to spend the most time with their children. However, with an early bedtime, parents must adjust their expectations and instead spend time with their children in the morning when they wake. I challenge them to consider what is more important – spending quality time with a well-rested child in the morning, or attempting to have that quality time with a fussy, overtired child in the evening?
Additionally, respecting your younger child’s need to go to bed earlier allows you to spend quality one-on-one time with an older child or with your spouse. It even allows for parents to go to bed earlier so they are better rested, as well!
Not a set number on the clock.
Parents should think of bedtime as a nightly moving target, not as a set number on the clock. By not factoring in the quality and duration of their child’s nap and adjusting bedtime accordingly, parents are often robbing their child of the most restorative sleep of the night, which takes place during those first hours.
Studies showing the importance of a consistent or “set” bedtime for children are designed with much older children in mind. When children no longer nap (often as early as age 3, but hold on to those naps as long as you can!), a consistent bedtime then becomes appropriate. Establishing a set bedtime after a child has dropped their last nap has been shown to help children self-regulate, develop positive habits and behaviors, and function successfully in and outside of the home.
However, babies and toddlers need more fluidity in what time they go to bed. Again, bedtime at this age is dependent on the quality and duration of the day’s naps, activity level of the day, and how well they slept the previous night.
Determining if your child’s bedtime is too late.
Here are some signs that your child’s bedtime may be too late:
- Your child is experiencing multiple night-wakings
- Your child is restless when sleeping
- Your child experiences early wake-ups (before 6am)
- At 16 weeks, your child is not clocking more than three-hour stretches of sleep
- Your child is waking up later than 8am
If your child is experiencing any of the above scenarios, then your baby or toddler’s bedtime is probably too late. Toddler and babies who tend to sleep-in are more than likely trying to catch up on sleep that was lost from going to bed too late the night before. The natural wake-up time for most children is between 6am and 8am, but your child’s natural wake-up time will only become evident once your child is well-rested and on a healthy sleep schedule.
What is an age appropriate bedtime?
The most sensitive time in a baby or toddler’s 24-hour sleep/wake cycle is the time between their last nap and the time they go to bed. If the time in-between is stretched too long. it can cause them to experience fragmented sleep.
Here are some helpful guidelines to follow when determining what time your child should go to bed:
- 0 to 2 months – no later than 1 hour after their last nap ends
- 3 months – no later than 1 hour and 30 minutes after their last nap ends
- 4 months – between 2 and 2 hours and 15 minutes after their last nap ends
- 5 months – between 2 and 2 hours and 30 minutes after their last nap ends
- 6 to 7 months – between 2 and 15 minutes to 2 hours and 45 minutes after their last nap ends
- 8 to 9 months – between 3 and 3 hours and 30 minutes after their last nap ends
- 10 to 18 months – between 3 to 4 hours after their last nap ends
- 19 months to 3 years – between 4.5 to 5 hours after their last nap
- 3 years and beyond – roughly 12 to 13 hours after wake-up after they have dropped all naps
Because they limit the time you spend with your child, early bedtimes often result in parental guilt. I remind my clients that this is a season of life and not how it will always be. It helps to remember that the quality of time is more important than the quantity of time you spend with your child.
Sleep needs in infants and toddlers are high, and not respecting those needs can cause any number of the problems I previously mentioned. Respecting your child’s need to sleep can help you avoid bedtime battles, fragmented sleep, and early rising. Just as you wouldn’t rob them of their nutritional needs, don’t rob them of the restorative sleep they need to grow and learn!
Maggie Moore is the Founder and Head Sleeper at Moore Sleep. She is a certified pediatric sleep consultant through the Family Sleep Institute, which means her sole focus and objective is getting your baby on a healthy sleep schedule so the whole family can get the sleep they need.
Like many parents, Maggie and her husband struggled with getting their son on a healthy sleep schedule and he was unable to fall asleep independently. As a result, her family was losing precious sleep every night.
Maggie became a firm believer when, shortly after hiring a certified pediatric sleep consultant, her son began sleeping independently at bed and nap times. It was a turning point that resulted in not only restful nights, but waking up fully rested with the energy to face the day. Maggie knew right away she wanted to become a certified consultant herself so she could help other families struggling to get the sleep they need.
Maggie and her family reside in Southern Indiana (near Louisville, KY). She received her bachelors in Journalism and a second concentration in Communications & Culture from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. You can follow her on Facebook or Instagram!