Bedtime routines for kids


Dear Adele,

My husband and I are at odds about the subject of bedtime for our preschooler. I think our son should have a set bedtime each night, while my husband thinks we should wait until he appears tired to put him to bed. We are arguing about this nightly and our son is getting caught in the middle. Can you help?

Tired of it All


Dear Tired of it All,

“There are many ways to skin a cat” they say. You and your husband are discovering this around the issue of setting a bedtime for your son. While there is never one perfect answer to most problems, empirical studies can be of assistance in setting solid rules and routines in your house.

Let me help you with your quandary by sharing some of the research. Perhaps you and your husband can then take it under consideration together and come up with a plan you can both stand behind. A unified approach is always best for your son.

Sleep expert Wendy Hall, of the University of British Columbia, did a massive review of 44 studies, across 16 countries, dealing with 300,000 children. She found a good sleep was critical to growth and development.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggests that a child your son’s age, 3 to 5 years, should get between 10 and 13 hours of sleep per night. Children 6 to 12 years need 9 to 12 hours, and teens ages 13 to 18 require 8 to 10. An appropriate bedtime for the under 9 crowd is around 7:30 pm, about 2 hours after dinner.

Many of the studies looked at by Hall, highlighted the importance of routines. There was also extensive evidence for limits on technology before bed and during the nighttime. Hall recommends that parents set bedtimes, family dinners and practice certain rituals before bed, as well as limit screen time. She also discovered that parental guidelines around bedtimes were better for teenagers than none at all.

Researcher Yvonne Kelly, from the University College in London, UK, studied 10,000 children longitudinally from age 3 through 7, focusing on bedtimes. She found that late bedtimes and nonregular bedtimes were correlated with behavioural difficulties such as hyperactivity, conduct problems, hitting, acting out, social problems and emotional withdrawal. Even when family differences were controlled for other variables Dr. Kelly found that “your regular bedtime impacted behaviour most strongly.” Dr. Kelly explained that irregular bedtimes were felt by children like adults experiencing jet lag. She also found that the switch to regular bedtimes improved behaviours.

Dr. Kelly’s study found that irregular bedtimes interrupted the normal 24-hour circadian patterns, which not only disrupt the child’s physical and mental functioning but interfere with brain development which can affect later life.

An interesting article by Kim West of US News entitled ‘10 Benefits of an Early Bedtime for your Child’, is an interesting read on this subject. It seems that earlier and regular bedtimes are associated with:

  • healthier children
  • better motor language
  • better social development,
  • better school performance,
  • better emotional stability
  • better BMIs
  • reduced waking’s
  • less early risings
  • less resistance at bedtime
  • greater predictability of bedtime
  • more quality time with the parent with routines that include songs, stories and quiet activities
  • faster fall asleep times
  • more hours of sleep
  • better preparation for healthy future habits
  • more personal time for the parent

So, what exactly is a routine you may be wondering? A routine is a repetitive series of activities, before bed, every night, which helps the child relax and fall asleep. Every evening should be the same and both parents should be part of it. It should be short and sweet. The bedroom should be dark, cool and quiet.

Most psychologists, and educators agree that children thrive on routine. Routines work well because they set expectations in advance that train behaviour. They help children develop a sense of security and control.  Stress is reduced. As well, the special time between a parent and child is an added bonus from a bedtime routine.

Ingredients in a good routine for children could include a nutritious snack, a bath, a diaper change, brushing teeth, going to the bathroom, dressing in pajamas, singing or listening to music, cuddling and rocking, talking about the day, praying, kissing, and lights out. Leaving the room while the child is still awake helps him/her learn not to panic when an adult is not present.

Daniele Pacheco suggests a few ‘Don’ts’ in an article entitled ‘Bedtime Routines for Children’. Try not to start the routine when the child is sleepy. Allow no running around. Allow no sugar, no caffeine, and no frightening stories. There should be no screen time for an hour before the bedtime routine.

So, there you have it Tired of it All. I hope you and your husband will find this column helpful and that you will have some fun developing bedtime routines for your little one. I will conclude with a few quotations which you might like:

A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.” — Irish Proverb

When the going gets tough, the tough take a nap.— Tom Hodgkinson

There is a time for many words, and there is a time for sleep.— Homer

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

Photo: Annie Spratt, Unsplash