What time should children go to bed?
There is no set guideline when it comes to proper bedtimes for children, other than to ensure kids are getting the recommended sleep for their age. (See child sleep recommendations) But how this occurs depends on your family’s schedule. So if your preschooler gets up at 7:00 a.m. but consistently takes a full 2 hour nap during the day, a bedtime of anywhere from 8:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. would be sufficient to get them the 11 to 13 hours of sleep per day recommended for this age group. However, keep in mind that this does not account for the wind-down ritual or time it takes to actually get them to sleep. So a preschooler who fell asleep right at 10:00 P.M. with a two-hour nap would get the minimum recommended 11 hours. If your tot required 13 hours, however, they should be asleep by 8:00 P.M.
Most parents find it works best to start with a bedtime of around 7:30 or 8:00 for toddlers and preschool children, then gradually move this back as a child gets older and their sleep needs change. It’s always easier to move it back to a later time than it is to bring it forward.
The Importance of a Consistent Bedtime
Regardless of when it is set, having a consistent bedtime and sleep ritual seems to be important for kids. One study found that consistent sleep was more important than when a child went to bed. “The surprising thing was the later bedtimes weren’t significantly affecting children’s test stores once we took other factors into account,” says Amanda Sacker, director of the International Center for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at University College London and coauthor of the study. “I think the message for parents is…maybe a regular bedtime even slightly later is advisable.”
The study tracked children’s sleep habits at ages 3, 5, and 7, along with factors such as skipping breakfast or having a television in the room. At age 3, nearly 20% of the children didn’t have a regular bedtime. That percentage dropped to 9.1% at age 5 and 8.2% at age 7, likely due to them starting school. When they checked a child’s school success against these factors, the consistency of a child’s bedtime emerged as a prime factor in their academic success. “Those who had irregular bedtimes at all three ages had significantly poorer scores than those who had regular bedtimes,” says doctor Sacker. (Reddy, 2013)
Of course, it’s entirely possible that consistent bedtime routines are simply a proxy for good parenting, and that those with irregular bedtimes have more disinvolved and disorganized parents, which would also translate into lower scores. But either way, consistency is important.
Bedtime consistency is also an important part of guarding against things like insomnia and sleep disorders. The more chaotic a child’s bedtime ritual is, the harder it will be for them to get to sleep and sleep soundly. “The internal clock in the brain and the body like to have consistency every day,” says Dr. Shalini Paruthi, director of the pediatric sleep and research center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center at Saint Louis University. “The younger the child is, the better it is to get into the habit of a regular bedtime,” she adds. “We tend to not pay as much attention to this issue of circadian disruption,” agrees Judith Owens, director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Instead, researchers tend to focus on how much sleep a child gets. (ibid)