This post is part of a series called “Big Kid Bedtime Problems” with certified sleep consultant Hadley Seward. So far, he’s introduced some general bedtime guidelines as well as specific tricks for parents of big kids (toddlers and up) who find their nighttime routines spiraling out of control.

Today Hadley has some advice on how to determine the right bedtime for your family. 


Most kids are going to bed too late.

Current research shows that our children’s’ bedtimes have been creeping later and later since the 1970s. At the same time, the school day is out-of-whack with most families’ schedules and we’re all a little guilty of over-scheduling our kids during their downtime.

The result? A nation of kids and tweens who are chronically overtired.

Research also shows that most children thrive with consistent, earlier bedtimes. This is because not all sleep is created equal: the quality of sleep is oftentimes more important than the quantity. Throughout the night we cycle between light and deep sleep, but we have a much greater percentage of deep sleep during the first half of the night. So a child who sleeps from 7pm – 6am will get more restorative sleep than one who sleeps from 9pm – 8am, even though both will have slept for 11 hours total.

Is there an ideal time for every kid to be in bed? Unfortunately not. Your child’s bedtime should be responsive to their daytime sleep (if any) and their activity levels during the day. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say that 7pm is a good bedtime for most 4-6 year olds and 8pm is good for most  7-9 year olds. But, in the end, it comes down to observing your child and playing detective to see if your current bedtime really works.

A few guidelines to help you out:

1) Don’t worry about other families’ bedtimes. If your friend/mom/a well-intentioned stranger is giving you shit about your child’s early bedtime, invite them to come over to put your overtired monster to bed. If an early bedtime works for your family, ignore all well-intentioned advice otherwise.

2) Take an honest look at how your child is acting 5pm and onwards. Remember that oftentimes overtired looks like just like not-at-all-tired. Does your child have a total meltdown every night at 7pm? Does she seem tired at dinnertime, but then has a huge burst of energy, running around like a banshee? Does she struggle with bedtime? Does it take her more than 30-45 minutes to fall asleep? Does she wake up overnight and/or at 5:30am or earlier? All of these are indicators that her body is T-I-R-E-D and she needs to go to bed earlier.

3) What’s logistically possible for your family? If you’re not home from work until 7pm, then a 7:15pm bedtime probably won’t work. But if you determine that your child truly needs to go to bed earlier, try to find creative solutions to make that happen. For families with two working parents, it may be that weekday bedtimes have to be later than you’d like, but you can compensate with an early bedtime on the weekends to help them to catch up on sleep.

What about parents who have 2+ kids of different ages who may need different bedtimes?

1) The first question is, when do your kids realistically need to be in bed? If you have a 7 and 8 1/2 year old, then they probably can have the same bedtime. If you have a 2 year old and a 5 year old, I can say with almost 100% certainty that one of them will need to be in bed before the other.

2) Is there a happy medium? Sometimes there is, especially if your older kid is happy to hang out in bed with a flashlight and a book until she’s ready for Snoozeville. The one thing you want to avoid is keeping the younger kid up until it’s time for the older child to go to bed. Your younger one will likely think it’s unfair that she has to go to bed first, but you’re the parent and you make the rules.

3) Lastly, decide if you want to do one joint routine or two separate ones. Different families have different preferences. Some want a one-and-done bedtime routine. Others want to keep them separate either to accommodate different bedtimes or so that each child gets some special time at the end of the day. You do what works in your household, as long as it ends with everyone getting into bed at an age-appropriate time.

Lastly, I want to say that it’s absolutely important that kids spend time with their parents. I don’t think that sleep trumps all other things. But sometimes we have to weigh the quality versus quantity of time. If your child needs to be in bed at 7pm but wakes up at 6am, then I would designate the mornings as the dedicated parent-kid time. (We do this and my husband has “special time” with each child in the mornings, since he’s not home from work early enough to see them at night). If your partner can’t make it home from work until just before bedtime, then my recommendation is that the bedtime routine become your partner’s domain so that they can calmly (oh-so-calmly!) get some quality one-on-one time with the kids.

Finding the right bedtime for your child can be tough, especially if it’s earlier than you’d like. I realize that it’s easy for me to lecture you from afar— after all, I’m not the one rearranging your schedules to make an early bedtime happen. But I’ve been there and know the struggle, especially at the beginning, while your family adjusts.

Is it tough? Yes. But is it worth it? 100%. Your child will be much more well-rested and less grumpy and, as an added bonus, you’ll get some extra adult time each night.

Get that Netflix queue ready and enjoy the quiet.

Hadley Seward is the mama of two and a pediatric sleep consultant living in New York City. She works with exhausted parents to help their kids get more sleep. Meet her at @_bonnenuitbaby.