Between seven and eight o’clock. End of story.
Ha ha! Seriously though, we’re all partial to the idea that there’s a particular time of night when you should be putting your child to bed. It makes things nice and easy, you can get into a predictable routine, their bodies anticipate when they’ll be heading to bed and it can start doing its thing, which will lead to more restful, rejuvenating sleep, right?
Well, yes. That’s absolutely right. (Thought I was going to go the other way with it, didn’t you?)
While I fully agree that all kids are different, and that some tend to sleep better at later hours than others, and so on and so forth, there are good reasons for putting your child to bed at a particular time of night, and leaving them to sleep until a particular time in the morning.
We tend to have a mindset of, “Well, If I put him to bed later and he wakes up later, then that’s the same as if I put him down earlier and he wakes up earlier.” It’s a common, and perfectly reasonable, way of thinking.
But according to Dr. Matt Walker, head of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, “The time of night when you sleep makes a significant difference in terms of the structure and quality of your sleep.”
Here’s the deal… We humans sleep in cycles, and during these cycles, our brains go from a rapid eye movement (REM) state to a deeper, non-REM state. We tend to think that we dream when we’re really out cold, but actually, the opposite is true, which is why we tend to wake up in the middle of our dreams. We’re in a very light state of slumber.
The stuff we’re after, the really restorative sleep, comes during the non-REM phase. Those are the hours where our brains are replacing vital chemicals, repairing muscles, and releasing growth hormones.
“So what?” you’re asking. ” As long as my baby gets the same amount of sleep, what difference does it make what time he gets it?
Well, according to Dr. Walker, the change from REM to non-REM sleep is hard-wired into our systems, and it occurs at certain times of the night, regardless of when your child goes to bed.
Kids who go to sleep later in the night may still sleep as much as kids with earlier bedtimes, but they’ll be getting much less of that juicy, delicious, non-REM sleep than their early-to-bed counterparts.
So, now that we’ve examined the reasoning behind it, let’s get to the heart of the story. What time should you be putting your kids to bed?
Well, according to the National Sleep Foundation, newborns need between 10.5 to 18 hours a day, but since they haven’t formed their circadian rhythms yet, they can be seriously unpredictable about when they decide to sack out. (As, I’m sure, we’re all aware.)
For infants between 4 and 11 months, we’re looking at between 9 and 12 hours a night, so depending on what time you want them to wake up, I’d say between 7:00 and 8:00 is a great time for bed.
Now here’s the really interesting part… From age one to age 13, kids’ sleep requirements don’t really change much. Toddlers need between 11-14 hours a night, preschoolers need 11-13, and school-aged kids need 9-11. (These numbers are also from the NSF. I’m not just pulling them out of the air.)
So really, from the time your child hits about 4 months old, right up until he’s a teenager, 7:00 or 8:00 is a pretty good target for bedtime. It gives your little one all the time he needs to get plenty of quality sleep, it’s right in the wheelhouse of the hours when their bodies are going to provide them with maximum benefit, and it allows you and your partner a couple of hours alone together, which is rejuvenating for you and your relationship. (Assuming you both like the same shows, obviously.)
So, yeah. That’s about it. Long story short, seven or eight o’clock. I told you so right from the beginning, but I figured a five-word answer would seem like I was just writing this with a Christmas hangover.
So now you know what time to put them to bed, what do you do if they aren’t sleeping? I’d recommend you check out the Sleep Sense Program. It’s a comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide to sleep training, and it’s guaranteed to get your child sleeping 11 – 12 hours straight through the night!