When is it Best to NOT be Child Led Regarding Sleep?

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!).





About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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6 Responses to When is it Best to NOT be Child Led Regarding Sleep?

  1. Rebecca N. says:

    But HOW do you get them tired when they aren’t? Some nights it can take well over an hour to get our 20 month old to sleep (we are still nursing) if we are dictating the time (we usually try for 8pm)… If we let her stay up and play, do a few more puzzles, read books, etc. she will look up and ask to nurse/go night night (lately between 9 and 9:30) and it will take 10 minutes tops. Neither seems to impact what happens throughout the night (she’s up and in our bed around midnight for the rest of the night) but she does sleep later if she goes to bed later, so she gets the same amount of sleep. So hard to know what to do…

    • Claude says:

      Yes, we are the same. Normally sleeps around 9.30-10pm. Will ask to go “up” when tired, especially if we suggest it to her around 9.30pm. If we try an earlier bedtime, say 8pm, she won’t actually fall asleep until the same time (10pm) but by then everyone is now tired and frustrated from spending hours gettinng her to fall sleep.

  2. Kathryn says:

    This is just impossible with my 2yr 10mo son and believe I have tried the consistent bedtime approach. It usually results in us both in a dark room wide awake & he starting to play up and me getting very frustrated. It can take 2 hours & I’ve ended up on the verge of tears wrestling my son to get him to stay in his room. The biggest fluctuations depend on whether or not get naps (he’s never fallen asleep in less than 7 hours after any kind of nap) so a late catnap means very late bedtime and even on no nap days he seems to get tired around 4pm and pushing past this means he is overtired already so cortisol kicks in and we are up way past what I would consider a suitable bedtime. I have just had to start being child led as I just don’t know what else to do, he only sleeps when he is precisely ready to!

  3. Fran Habils says:

    I have a few questions/thoughts on this.

    I definitely believe that kids can go over the point of fatigue, because they don’t want to miss anything. I see that happen with my 3yo a lot. However, if we pay attention to her showing signs of fatigue and start her bedtime routine accordingly, she will go to sleep. If we start it when she isn’t tired, she will try ro sleep for a long time, but she just can’t.

    Another thing is that she always wakes up later when she goes to bed later or sometimes she doesn’t, but then she will take a nap throughout the day. So when it comes to the total amount of sleep she gets, I don’t think she misses out on anything.

    I have also read an article that states that hunter-gatherers used to sleep in bits and pieces throughout the day. And then there’s also the cultures in the south of Europe where they get up early in the morning, nap in the late afternoon and go to bed late at night. So, our bedtimes are very much determined by culture. (http://discovermagazine.com/2007/dec/sleeping-like-a-hunter-gatherer)

    Is there really a reason why it would be better to send my child to bed at 8? I’m genuinly wondering, because she is a spirited child and has always been a terrible sleeper (so am I, by the way) and hasn’t slept through the night yet. If you really feel like it would be better, I might consider it.
    I actually have bad memories from all the times I had to stay in bed and couldn’t sleep as a child, so I don’t want to put her through that.
    She doesn’t go to school either, so she is completely free to go to sleep and wake up when she wants. It is pretty hard on us, though!

  4. Kate says:

    I follow my child, not the clock for naps.. So how can I then shift to following the clock for bedtime.. Doesn’t work here..

  5. Lisa says:

    I completely agree with this article. Although AP promotes a respectful communication with your child, there is also basic biology to consider. Toddlers are comforted by predictability and routine. Their body clocks are circadian and they will have a natural dip after the evening meal, around 6/7 pm. Starting a consistent routine sends a powerful message to their brains that sleeptime is approaching. Once this routine is established their is very little else you need to do, they know what happens next and they welcome it!

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