Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward yes or no answer. Letting your child set their own bedtime is a highly personal decision, and there’s not one single approach that will work for every family.
Is your child asking for a later bedtime? Or are you hoping to end bedtime battles by shifting bedtime responsibility to your child? Here’s what you need to keep in mind.
The ideal and the real
Ideal: Bedtime fights will lessen when the child chooses their own bedtime.
Real: Sleep is incredibly important for growth and development, and children and young adults need plenty of rest for optimal health. Just as you wouldn’t let your child decide to brush their teeth only once a week or live off candy and cookies, letting them choose a bedtime doesn’t mean letting them stay up till dawn.
Ideal: A baby’s, toddler’s and even a teen’s body instinctively knows when it is tired and needs to sleep, so your child will go to sleep when they are tired.
Real: Children cannot always recognize and articulate their need for sleep, nor respect it by getting themselves to bed when needed. As parents, we don’t want to force our children into bed when they aren’t physically ready to fall asleep. Letting your child listen to their body is an important life skill; however, we need to guide them through the process of recognizing their sleep signs and getting to bed in a timely manner.
Parental guidance (still) required
Being conscious and respectful parents means helping our children take ownership of their sleep needs by guiding them through the process.
If your child is old enough to reason with and have discussions about sleep and bedtimes, then get them involved in figuring out their ideal time for nighttime sleep. Talk to them about how you decide when they need to go to sleep. By showing them your process, your reasons for enforcing bedtime will be less mysterious and arbitrary. Over time, this will encourage less parental control and more accountability from your child.
Teach Children About the Importance of Sleep
Whether you’re ready to let your child choose their bedtime or not, the benefits of sleep should be made obvious to them and not reserved as information only for parents.
Make sure your child knows that quality sleep
- lets us process everything learned during the day
- helps improve concentration and productivity
- supports growth
- helps improve immune function
- helps maintain a healthy weight
- helps decrease moodiness
- minimizes stress
Is a self-directed bedtime working?
The table below shows the approximate amount of sleep recommended in a 24-hour period for each stage of childhood.
|Hours of sleep
in a 24-hour period
Individual temperament can affect the amount of sleep needed, so consider that together with the recommended totals to make a well-informed decision.
Take a look at how they are behaving between 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Are they alert and engaged during the witching hour? Then their bedtime is probably working for them. If they are miserable or disengaged, then they are tired and bedtime probably needs to be adjusted. If they are wired or hyper, they are very likely overtired, and adjustments should be made to sleep times.
Remember that bedtime should be based on wake-up time. Consider the time a child needs to wake up in the morning to determine what time they must go to bed in order to get the minimum amount of recommended sleep. Many young children will wake up at 6 a.m. every day no matter how much sleep they actually need, so set a bedtime that allows at least the minimum amount of recommended sleep for their age group.
What about naps?
Children who are still napping in the afternoon will have a later bedtime depending on what time they wake from their last nap. Oftentimes, toddlers will only be ready for bedtime five to six hours after waking from their nap. Babies under 12 months will be ready for bed much earlier as their waking times are much shorter.
Sleep calculator for kids
If your child wants to take control of bedtime, have them try out this fun little tool to determine their ideal bedtime. (Or use it yourself for littler kids.) Use with caution as it doesn’t take into account any outside factors such as temperament, but it will offer some insight for children ages 4–18.
Still struggling with bedtime battles?
When parents are struggling with bedtime, I always suggest they take a look at how much time they are spending with their child before sleep. A lot of the time, a child resists bedtime because they want to feel connected to their parents after a busy day or after separation due to school and work schedules. Bedtime may be happening at the right time, but resistance arises because the child wants to be with their loved ones. Carving out time to make those connections may be tough with hectic lives, but it is definitely worth it.
By not enforcing an arbitrary bedtime and instead letting your child’s needs inform sleep times, you are already allowing them to set their best bedtime. Including your child in the process—depending on their age and maturity—will help them take ownership of their sleep schedule.
For an older child asking to set their own bedtime, you should show them your process for deciding bedtime so that they understand where it is coming from. Many children will respect bedtime once the process is made transparent. Guiding them through this decision making allows them to take ownership over the expectations.
Have you let your child set their own bedtime?
*All content provided in this blog article is for informational purposes only. In no case shall Janelle Kent be liable for any errors or omissions in this information, nor for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information.