Many will know me as an author who advocated being as child led as possible as much as possible, particularly when it comes to sleep. I expect therefore that this post will surprise quite a few.
I strongly believe that you shouldn’t let your child pick their own bedtime.
I’m all for being as baby led as possible in the first few months, however in older babies, toddlers and preschoolers I firmly believe that in most cases, a totally child led bedtime is a mistake. I help many parents who allow their child to go to bed when they ask or indicate, often at differing times everyday, who struggle with their sleep. Out of the suggestions I give them, setting a bedtime tops the list.
So, why shouldn’t children pick their own bedtimes?
Imagine this scenario:
You are a toddler. You’ve had a great day with one parent and an enjoyable evening with both after the other comes home from work. The evening is still young and full of excitement. Games to play, songs to sing, cuddles to have, books to read and perhaps television to watch. Now, knowing that the area of your brain responsible for impulse control and self regulation is very underdeveloped (and remains that way even through the teenage years), what do you think you might do? Listen to your body’s tiredness cues, or fight through them to enjoy a fun, or hug, filled evening with your parents?
You may think, “well they will fall asleep when they’re really tired, even if they stay up a bit”. The problem with this presumption however, is that it rarely happens. Biologically speaking the child’s body does everything to prevent it. When they become overtired their body compensates by secreting cortisol to keep them awake (duracell bunny ‘second wind’ anyone?). Cortisol inhibits melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone of sleep. Do you see a problem? Our overtired little people are wired even though they are grossly overtired.
The next problem is that child led bedtimes can vary quite a lot and it may or may not be possible to do a consistent bedtime routine, the very thing that is proven to have a significant effect on sleep (see my video below for more on bedtime routines).
So, child led could result in an appropriate bedtime, but more likely it will result in gross overtiredness and an inconsistent bedtime routine – both of which spell problematic sleep.
For this reason, I commonly advise parents to adopt an age appropriate bedtime (around 8pm), preceded by a good wind-down routine and a bedtime routine for at least an hour prior to sleep. The bedtime can be a little flexible, but unless it is impossible because you’re not at home, or your child is ill I recommend sticking to 30 minutes either side of the bedtime, earlier or later, and no more, right the way through childhood (even the teenage years – though obviously the bedtime gets later as the child gets older!).