It's all in the timing: kids' bedtimes

When does your child need to get to bed? Experts do the math for you

When soccer season started last summer, Rachel Larabie was definitely not having a ball. It was an almost nightly battle to get her children, eight-year-old Aaron and Madison, five, into bed. The Toronto mom says that although her kids probably weren’t going to bed early enough at the best of times, “it just seemed crazier with the soccer. We wouldn’t get home until nine o’clock, and then they needed time to wind down.” Getting your kids to bed at a decent hour is rarely as simple as it sounds. Most kids are biologically imbued with a natural bedtime, but late-working parents, family vacations and, yes, the little-league semifinals create complications. Here’s a list of FAQs to help you assess your child and your circumstances, and hit on the most appropriate time for hitting the hay. How much sleep does my child really need?
Although there are individual variations, babies usually need 16 to 20 hours of sleep a day (including naps), preschoolers require 11 to 14, school-aged kids eight to 10, and adolescents nine to 11. There is evidence that sleep needs spike, sometimes back up to 11 hours, or more typically nine, at the onset of puberty and continuing for up to three years.

To work out your child’s optimal amount, pay attention to her natural waking pattern during school vacations, or other times when alarm clocks are quiet. “How many hours does she need to wake up spontaneously, feel good and have a good day? It’s actually a little longer than most kids get on weekdays,” says Valerie Kirk, medical director of Paediatric Sleep Services at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. But pay no heed to her rising time on weekends, Kirk cautions. The draw of Dora the Explorer on Saturday mornings can be overpowering.
Does my child come with a built-in bedtime?
The short answer is yes, according to Henry Ukpeh, a paediatrician in Trail, BC. While nap times and wake-up times vary according to age and individual needs, Ukpeh says kids under five get the best-quality sleep when they go to bed between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. “The child will have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol if they sleep for longer, sleep more deeply and don’t wake frequently.”

Aiming for a bedtime this early, however, just isn’t practical for many working parents. It would mean Lynn Neville’s three-year-old daughter, Kristin, would barely see her dad, who doesn’t get home from work until 7 p.m. or later. Instead, Kristin gets a late bedtime. “It’s very important to me that we all sit down and have a meal together,” says Neville from her hobby farm in Eganville, in the Ottawa Valley. “Kristin is able to talk to her daddy, and tell him what she’s been doing in the day.”

No worries, says Ukpeh, who recognizes that an early bedtime isn’t possible for every family. “The key is to maintain a full complement of sleep,” he says. “If the child sleeps through the night and deeply, and wakes up bright and alert, then you know you are winning.”

As children get older, their internal clock is more individualized. Most, though, experience a shift to a longer rhythm when they hit puberty — which is why teens who get up early for school or swimming practice are so regularly sleep deprived.

So how do I set a workable bedtime for my child?
Many of us need to haul our kids out of the house at a fixed time to deliver them to school or daycare. So it makes sense to start with that departure time and work backwards, counting in the required hours of sleep, as well as the time needed for a manageable morning routine. “Make sure they have enough time to get cleaned up, have a nice breakfast and not feel rushed,” says Penny Corkum, a child psychologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who specializes in ADHD and sleep. “For many people, about an hour is good.”

What if the math just isn’t working? If you’re like soccer-mom Larabie and shuttling your kids to after-dinner activities, or you work fiendishly long hours, then chances are that tucking them in for 10 or 12 hours puts too much of a squeeze on your schedule. One option is to get creative instead of compromising your kids’ rest. For instance, if you need to transport your infant in the early morning, try getting her into the car seat without waking her, and assigning the wake-up routine to the sitter. For older children, assess the night routine. If bedtime is an hour or more of bedlam, it’s time to reel in the routine to a more tenable 20 minutes.

What are the signs that my child’s bedtime is too late?
As adults, we yawn and feel listless when we haven’t slept enough. By contrast, says Corkum, “kids may increase their activity level to counteract their tiredness.”

Since an overtired tot may look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, look for other clues such as habitual meltdowns after dinner or stall tactics at sleep time. School-aged kids may get moody and weepy, and toddlers might suck their thumbs, ask for a bottle or fall asleep in the car. Adolescents may seem to sleepwalk through their morning classes. Perhaps the most telling sign that your child needs more sleep is when you need a bulldozer to push him out of bed in the morning.
How can I tell if my child’s bedtime is too early?
All three of Sonia Clark’s kids used to be tucked in by 7:30. But the eldest, five-year-old Nicholas, started having trouble falling sleep and was waking earlier than the others in the morning. That signalled to his mom that he had outgrown the early bedtime. “There wasn’t any other reason for him to be waking up,” says Clark, of Petawawa, Ont.

Ukpeh agrees that a child who is put to bed too early will often demonstrate sleep difficulties, taking a long time to fall asleep and waking several times a night. But he may also be cranky, or resist going to bed — just like the child who’s going down too late. Corkum points out that if a too-early bedtime means a child is not sleeping well through the night, he can be sluggish rather than alert at daybreak. The tipoff is if, like Nicholas, your child’s behaviour has suddenly changed while the sleep schedule has not.

When is a child ready to choose her own bedtime?
By the time kids hit adolescence, they’re usually turning in on their own. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand the best time to do it. “A 14-year-old often still needs direction and guidance,” says Kirk. Depending on the child’s maturity level, however, “some things you can certainly negotiate, and they can participate in decisions.” For instance, mom and dad might insist on a time for being in bed with no music or TV, but a responsible child can be left to turn off the light when she chooses.

When kids lobby for a later bedtime, many of them will argue they can make up for lost sleep on the weekends. “This is difficult for teens because they think of sleep like a debt,” says Kirk. “‘If I’m only getting five hours of sleep in the week, that’s OK because on Saturdays I’ll sleep until 11.’ But it doesn’t actually work that way physiologically.” (For more information on teens and sleep, see Asleep at the Switch).

 Is it OK to extend bedtime on weekends or in the summer?
On weekends, it’s a good idea not to let bedtimes stray by more than half an hour, except on special occasions, advises Corkum. In summer, it’s a challenge to stay true to the sleep schedule. If bedtime gets stretched all summer, though, Corkum suggests plotting a return to normal at least two weeks before school starts. Bring it back no more than 30 minutes every few nights, until your child has settled into the new schedule.

Pave the Way to Dreamland
One way to help your child stick to a regular bedtime is to have a nighttime routine that lasts about 15 or 20 minutes. “Before they’ve even gotten into bed, they’ve started to relax and let go,” says sleep expert Valerie Kirk of Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary.

“We like to keep our routine simple and straight-forward,” agrees Sheryl Dove of Surrey, BC. Her son Elijah, 15 months, has had a consistent bedtime since he was just a few weeks old. In the lead-up to lights out, Elijah gets his face washed, his teeth brushed, a diaper change and PJs. He and his mom say good night to the moon before Dove closes the blinds and they have a little snuggle. Once in his crib, Elijah is happily reunited with his blankie and ducky.

A bedtime routine that can be reproduced anywhere by anyone is a bonus. “If the parent lies in bed next to the child, that’s a big decision,” says Kirk. For example, it may be difficult to leave your child with a sitter if the child will settle down only if you’re beside her.

“One of the things I really like about our routine is that anyone can put him down, so Mommy can sometimes have a break,” says Dove, although she concedes that she’s usually loath to give it up. “It’s one of my favourite parts of the day. I can get a cuddle in.”

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