Why does my child need a consistent bedtime?

A consistent bedtime is important for children of all ages. Why? What happens if they have a late night? Does this mean they should never stay up past bedtime? What about on weekends? If this just for young children or does this apply to my older kids too?

These are questions that I answer all the time.

A consistent bedtime is recommended for children and adults of all ages. Yes, I said adults too. Now, this doesn't mean that there can't be special exceptions for a late movie night, attending a party or the occasional sleepover for your child. These occasional late nights will certainly come with consequence but if you are willing to accept that the following day might not be full of joy and laughter, go for it! I think this is where we as adults, often falter. Our occasional late nights become more and more regular (or irregular) and pretty soon we can't identify a 'normal' bedtime at all. We go through our days in a fog, relying on the mid-afternoon caffeine jolt or sugary sweet treat to get us through the day.

Now of course, as with a lot of sleep related topics, our ability to cope with an always changing bedtime depends on our temperament and overall disposition. Some of us won't be rattled by this change and we adapt rather easily but for others, this state of constant change can leave us feeling rather overwhelmed and cranky. The same applies to your babies and children as well. Babies tend to struggle with change and so a constantly changing environment or pattern to their day can leave them feeling quite overwhelmed and irritable. Not knowing what to expect and having to adapt to change on a daily basis can be exhausting for your little ones. Those of you who have worked one on one with me and your child's sleep know that babies start to recognize and predict the patterns of their day from a very early age. Disruption to this pattern and coping with change can leave them feeling unsettled and this unsettled feeling is often expressed through crying (sometimes intense crying), not wanting to be put down, not wanting be alone and needing your constant presence so they feel safe and secure in a world where they have no idea what is coming next. This behavior can last all day long but can be "off the charts" at bedtime. Why? Well, they recognize bedtime as the time of day when the lights go out, they have to stay in their bed for a long time and mom or dad might not be as close to them as they would like for the constant reassurance that they feel they need after their busy and unpredictable day.

This is when it becomes very important to address bedtime struggles from a holistic point of view. Take in your entire day. What have you asked of your child today? Was it a busy day? Were you out of the house? Did your child get to experience new things? Meet new people? Start school? Get at least one nap in their own bed? Sleep while on the go? All of these things will happen, this is life and life goes on, these things happen. The key is recognizing these events as possible sleep disruptors. On these days your child will crave the routine of your daily life as their comfort.

Bedtime is a great place to start. If you have worked with me one on one or taken any of the Love n' Snuggles sleep courses, you have heard me say this before, routine is so important but what can be even more important than routine is consistency. Your child has been predicting the routines of your day from a very young age. When these routines happen consistently and at predictable and regular intervals, your child knows what to expect. They are able to recognize the next step and this gives them a feeling of comfort, safety and security.

The younger your child, the earlier they will want to go to bed. Young babies may prefer a bedtime as early as 6pm, older babies and toddlers around 7pm, preschoolers between 7-7:30pm and school age children around 7:30-8pm. Your teen or pre-teen may want to stay up as late as 9, 10 or even 11pm, but trust me, a late bedtime will reflect on their performance at school, in sport and their ability to cope with change (and anyone with a teenager knows they go through a lot of growth and change). A bedtime of 9pm for a teenager is pushing it in terms of how much sleep they need and what time they need to be waking up for school.

A consistent bedtime also helps to regulate our internal sleep/wake clock. Our bodies are set to the circadian rhythm of when the sun rises and sets. This is a 24hr internal clock that regulates many aspects of how our body functions, grows and changes. The circadian rhythm is linked to cortisol, our stress hormone. When we sleep "off clock" or out of sync with the circadian rhythm, our stress hormone cortisol, rises. Cortisol is also released during the "fight or flight" nervous system response to perceived stress or danger. Let's go back to your child's response to change... If they are presented with irregular days, constant change, irregular sleep places or patterns, feeling unable to predict their day... how do you think they might be feeling? Probably really unsettled which will express itself as irritability and a need for your constant presence as reassurance and comfort. This is a stress response. Their nervous system is in "fight or flight" mode which raises cortisol, activates their nervous system and if this activation is happening repeatedly, over time, this heightened level of cortisol can significantly affect their sleep. They will wake often in the night, they will need your presence as comfort and they will resist bedtime. They will probably also really struggle with naps because if their circadian rhythm is fully functioning (around 16-18 weeks of age) their body is telling them to be awake during the day and then we add the "fight or flight" stress response on top of this and they will find it extremely difficult to transition from awake and active to falling asleep for a nap.

So what can you do to help your child?

  • Create predictable patterns to your day.

  • Wake at the same time everyday (yes, weekends too).

  • Set a regular bedtime (yes, weekends too). Young children may tolerate the once in a while late night but definitely not on a weekly basis. Your middle school or teenage child may tolerate a once a week later night but expect the consequence of the next day in their mood, their ability to cope with life and in their performance at school.

  • A bedtime routine is an absolute must for babies, children and adults of all ages. This routine sends a message to your brain that sleep time is coming.

  • Help your young children nap during the day by having a nap routine. This routine gives them time and space to transition from active and awake to being ready for sleep.

  • Your routines around sleep time should be quiet, cozy, warm, comforting, loving and positive. If your child is expressing their unsettled day in the form of crying, your ability to give them a calm presence is the absolute best way to comfort them (and is also probably the hardest thing for you to give them at the end of a busy day). Check in with yourself, how are you feeling, slow your breathing, relax the muscles in your jaw and your shoulders, breathe deeply and bring as much calmness into your body as you can, your child will sense your calm energy and gradually become calm themselves.

If you have questions about this post or you need some support setting up daily routines and a consistent bedtime, Love n' Snuggles is here for you. Join our 5 Days to Better Sleep Bootcamp group and sign up for the email program. Register for The Mother of All Sleep Courses for all the information you need to build strong sleep habits for your child. This course is for babies and children from newborn to age twelve. If you need help beyond these course we can set up a personalized, one on one consultation.

Melanie Pinet RN, BN,

IBCLC, Holistic Sleep Educator

Owner of Love n' Snuggles

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Melanie Pinet

IBCLC Lactation Consultant

Holistic Sleep Educator

Alberta, Canada