There is often controversy over whether young children should have regular and/or early bedtimes. Sleep expert Marc Weissbluth**, in his book "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child" argue that children have a natural biological bedtime in the early evening, around 6:30-7 pm, and that the reasons parents might put their children to bed later range from selfish to irresponsible. Others argue that following a child-led sleep schedule is more important than imposing an external clock.
I've found that in the summer, when the sun stays up later and children's activities are available in to the evening, bedtime tends to fall apart. During the school year, my 5 and 1 year-olds both went to bed around 7 pretty regularly, so having them up in the summer until 9 and 10 pm is a bit of a shock to my system.
Like many issues in parenting, I'm not as convinced as the hundreds of authors and "experts" who have written books on the subject that there is one right answer. Here's a few things to consider.
• Set Schedules – A routine for your baby or toddler can have many benefits. If you can identify your child's sleepy phases throughout the day, particularly as their nap schedules shift over the first two years, it can reduce fussiness and meltdowns. I have definitely noticed that an earlier and regular bedtime for my girls makes them more able to function in the mornings and more even-temperedness during the day. A consistent bedtime and/or naptime routine can help settle your little one for sleep.
• Bedtime Battles – Once your child is a little older, bedtime and naptime routines may go awry. My oldest daughter started throwing her bedtime book across the room once she figured out that bedtime always followed (she figured without the book, she wouldn't have to go to bed!). Kids often start to fight bedtime and naptime, often somewhere between 1 ½ and 2 ½ years old. You'll need to decide if you want to "fight through it," or if you want to let your child take more control of their own sleep schedule.
• Family Needs – The Weissbluth** early bedtime is often tough for families where mom or dad works late, or do not want to adjust from their "pre-baby schedule." If one parent doesn't even get home from work until late, they may want to have quality time with baby before the routine care tasks of meals, bath and bed. Parents may not be hungry for dinner with baby at 5 pm. Some families simply choose the later bedtime. Some feed baby early and eat on their own later. Some shift the family schedule. I'd recommend at least assessing what works best with your baby's natural body clock – try out the early bedtime – you may find tantrums and meltdowns, or naptime and bedtime battles disappear. If that is the case, you might decide it worth it to make adjustments. Or you may find an earlier schedule makes no difference.
• Alone time – My husband and I have always been willing to brave the bedtime battles because I simply **must** have some child-free time after the kids go to bed. I need at least a few hours "off the clock" when I can veg out and watch some adult TV (I don't watch TV when the kids are up – see my article on "Children and Television Watching"), do some cleaning, do some uninterrupted writing (like now!), and simply be my "non-mommy self." This may not be the case for you – some moms take this time in the early morning (this non-morning person gapes incredulously in your general direction!), or some simply don't feel that need. But I'd go absolutely batty without bedtime – I have fun in the summers doing activities, but by the end I'm counting the days until I can get some regularity and daily "Nicki-time" going again in our lives.
Whether young children should have regular or early bedtimes can be a thorny issue for parents. Everyone seems to have an opinion on this subject. Regardless of whether your child goes to bed early or late, I'd be sure to consider if your little one is getting enough *overall* sleep. If you get the kids up in the morning early for daycare, or they wake early on their own, and they are going to bed late, there may be a sleep deficit for your baby that can affect behavior and even health and development. For more on that topic, consider Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's book, "Sleepless in America: Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep?"
For further reading...here's the books I mentioned in this article:
(**a note about Weissbluth -- I always have some reservations recommending this book, because I do not agree with the cry-it-out method of sleep training, or anything in that vein. However, Weissbluth has some excellent information and theories on baby and child sleep requirements, patterns and rhythms which can be an excellent help in understanding sleep needs and challenges. I encourage you to read him for his scientific understanding of sleep and pass on his theories of sleep training.)
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