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Winks: What's the Best Bedtime for My Kid?

Sleep solutions for modern families

Published on: March 05, 2018

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Sleepy kid

In her recurring column, author and sleep research guru Malia Jacobson answers reader questions about that most important of parenting tools: a good night's sleep. In this edition, how to decide bedtime and what to do with a night-owl teen.

How do I know what time is appropriate for my child’s bedtime each night? Is there a rule of thumb for a bedtime that correlates with age?

Finding your child’s ideal bedtime — the time when he’ll be primed to doze off quickly without a fight — is a major win. Not only does it make day-to-day life easier for your child and increase the chances that he’ll sleep soundly at night, but it helps to head off sleep troubles down the road, especially the pesky problems caused by overtiredness and undertiredness. If your child isn’t sleeping well, finding the right bedtime can make a world of difference. 

Is there a rule of thumb for bedtime, based on a child’s age? The short answer: sort of. In general, babies and young toddlers usually do best with a bedtime between 6 and 8 p.m., while preschoolers and early elementary-age children (many of whom still require 10 hours of sleep per night) seem to fare well with a nightly lights-out time between 7 and 9. But these guidelines are just that: guidelines. These two-hour ranges aren’t especially helpful when you’re trying to pinpoint the best bedtime for your unique child. And simply picking a generic bedtime (say, 8 p.m.) that isn’t correlated with your child’s individual sleep needs is a recipe for a mess.

To zero in on your child’s best bedtime, employ a little math. First, determine how much sleep your child needs in a 24-hour period by charting his sleep for a couple of days. Then, subtract that total from 24 to arrive at the number of hours your child can comfortably stay awake during the day. Beginning at his wake-up time in the morning, count through his waking hours (not counting naps) until you reach his daily awake-time limit. Voila, you’ve found his best bedtime.

Don’t be shocked if your child’s ideal bedtime is much earlier — or later — than you thought it should be. It may not fall within the guidelines that I mention, above. It may be earlier or later than your neighbor, sister, or babysitter puts her kids to bed. The important thing is that it’s the right bedtime for your child — and that you know what it is.

No matter how much I lecture her about bedtime, my teenager stays up past midnight every night. She’s a zombie the next day. How can I get her to turn in at a reasonable hour?

Don’t blame your teen for her night owl tendencies. Blame biology.

Teens experience a natural phase delay that pushes them to stay up later and sleep later in the morning, which is hardly convenient, given that many teens need to wake up at dawn for early classes. Plus, parents are often shocked to learn that teens need more sleep than they did in middle school — over nine hours a night.

Though your teen may have outgrown bedtime stories and a nightly tuck-in, you can still encourage a reasonable bedtime. First, set a power-down hour for all devices. The glow of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and televisions interferes with the brain’s production of melatonin, so late-night screen time can leave your teen feeling wired, not tired.

And wake your teen at an agreed-upon hour (no later than 10 a.m.) in the morning, even on weekends. The morning wake-up call programs the body clock for the rest of the day, so getting an earlier start to the day will help your teen feel ready for bed come nightfall.

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