When it comes to bedtime, many parents dream of sweet moments filled with snuggles and stories – but the reality can be a bit more of a nightmare. Whether your kid begs and bargains to stay up every night or they start screaming when you leave the room, bedtime battles can leave parents feeling demoralized and exhausted, with questions like:
Why does my child need a bedtime – and when should it be?
How can I get my kid to get ready for bed without arguing?
What’s the best bedtime routine to help my child sleep?
In HelloJoey’s “Sweet Dreams: Real Talk about Sleep” kit, we look at the benefits of consistent bedtimes and how having a bedtime routine can improve the quality of your child’s sleep. We also share ideas and tips to help parents end bedtime battles once and for all.
What time should my child go to bed?
Having a consistent bedtime for your kid not only lets them know what to expect from day to day, it also can help to normalize their circadian rhythm – so they’ll actually start to get sleepy every night around bedtime and their sleep will be more restful. While there’s no “right” bedtime that applies to all kids, you can figure out a bedtime that’s reasonable for your child using this simple formula:
Decide what time your child needs to wake in the morning in order to get ready and get out the door on time. Let’s say they need to wake at 7 a.m.
Figure out how many hours of sleep your child needs, either based on your own knowledge or based on the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommendations. Let’s say they need 11 hours of sleep.
Deduct the number of hours your child sleeps from your target wake time to find the time your child needs to fall asleep. If your child has to wake at 7 a.m. and needs 11 hours of sleep, they’ll need to fall asleep around 8 p.m.
Working backward from that target fall-asleep time, factor in how long it takes your child to get ready for bed – including any steps like bath time, brushing their teeth, and reading stories or singing songs. If that takes an hour, then in this example, bedtime should start around 7 p.m.
You may want to add a little wiggle room, beginning your routine at 6:45 or even 6:30 to allow for unexpected delays or an extra story or potty break. Of course, every kid is different, so you may need to experiment a little, but this will give you a ballpark idea of when to set bedtime for your child.
How can I start bedtime without a big fight?
If just the word “bedtime” sends your kid into a tizzy or has them begging to stay up a little longer, then you might find yourself starting to dread bedtime as much as your child does. Ending the day on a sour note is no fun for anyone – but shifting strategies might help.
Kids do need to know that it’s time to get ready for bed, but you don’t have to be the bearer of that bad news. “At our house, we have a nightlight that turns on at 7:45 and plays music. It’s our cue that the bedtime routine is beginning,” shares sleep consultant Sarah Mitchell. “It's great, because you can blame it on the light instead of yourselves.”
In fact, there are plenty of creative ways you can signal to your kids that it’s time for bed without saying a word. Not only can you schedule them to be on-the-dot consistent, but automated signals make it a lot harder for kids to shoot the messenger. These are just a few ideas, but you can try any signal that will work well for your family:
Schedule your streaming service or phone to play a song like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Use a scent, like applying lavender lotion or making a cup of chamomile tea.
Connect bedtime to an evening task – like feeding the cat or starting the dishwasher.
Automatically dim the lights in the room where your family spends the evenings.
Your child may need just one trigger or you may need to try a couple, and you may need to change them as your family changes. Older kids might have the hang of bedtime and need less prompting, or a new arrival could throw the whole system out of whack. Don’t be afraid to try something different if your regular trick isn’t working any more.
How do bedtime routines help kids fall asleep?
While there are some lucky people who can fall asleep before their heads hit the pillows, most of us need a little winding-down time before we’re relaxed and ready for sleep. Kids are the same way, and a consistent series of bedtime rituals can help them get ready for bed, not just physically but emotionally and mentally, too. If your kid is energetic, that long leisurely bath can help them work out the wiggles and calm down. If you have more than one child, bedtime routines can keep everyone on task – or keep them separated so they don’t keep each other awake.
Bedtimes also can help to soothe kids with separation anxiety. Bedtime is essentially a goodbye, so when you say goodnight, remind your child that you’ll see them in the morning just like you always do, and share something that will help them look forward to the next day. If you won’t be there when your child wakes, reassure them that you will come home and remind them that mom or grandpa or someone else will be there to make breakfast and take them to school.
“The idea is that the routine is something the child has,” says Dr. Tovah Klein of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. “It doesn't have to be the same parent each night. It can be done by a caregiver or grandparent. Everybody does it slightly differently and the child gets used to that, but there's a basic time and a basic order.”
While many bedtime routines include some combination of bathing, brushing, and books or stories, your routine will depend on your individual child. Your kid might prefer to have a morning shower rather than an evening bath, and that’s okay. The concept of sleep diversity – or the wide variations in how sleep happens from person to person – applies as much to bedtime routines as it does to every other aspect of sleep. When you know what your child needs, whether it’s a long time to wind down or a quick kiss before lights out, you can create a bedtime routine that will work for everyone.
In HelloJoey’s “Sweet Dreams: Real Talk about Sleep” kit, we explore the sleep issues that affect kids up to age 12 – and what exhausted parents can do to get quality sleep for everyone. In it, you’ll learn:
sleep recommendations for every age group.
why sleep is important for healthy bodies and brains.
how to set the scene and design sleep sanctuaries for better rest.
what to do about common issues like bedwetting and night terrors.
Want to learn more about “Sweet Dreams: Real Talk about Sleep?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.