8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

My children have no bedtime.

All four of them.

Apart from a short period with our oldest two where we fell into a bedtime habit before realising our mistake, it has always been this way.

From birth, through infancy, as toddlers (which some of them still are), and into childhood, they have known and trusted their own bodies.

While many people think children are incapable of this kind of decision, they prove to me every day that is untrue. Even very young children, when free from control, make decisions that are beneficial for them.

In our house, bedtime is not a bad thing. Everyone happily announces when they are ready for sleep and enjoys going to bed. Yes even 1-year-olds and 3-year-olds.

8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

Bedtime doesn’t have to be a struggle or a fight. Instead, it can be an opportunity to support a child’s autonomy and learning about themselves.

8 Reasons to Ditch Bedtime for Good…

1. Children are capable of listening to their bodies

Sleep is a biological function. We all need it! So it makes no sense that people would require others to decide on a sleep schedule for them. When you are tired, you sleep. Newborn babies are very good at it. So what changes as they grow older?

Problems arise when adults try to control their children’s sleep in order to make it fit an idea of how they believe children should sleep. In non-Western societies, children have far fewer sleep ‘problems’ (or maybe more accurately parents are less troubled by their children’s sleep), likely due to the fact that they are far less controlling around sleep. In these cultures, infants sleep when tired, on or next to a caregiver instead of separate, they breastfeed on demand, and night waking is accepted.

“I can’t help noting that no cultures in the world that I have ever heard of make such a fuss about children’s bedtimes, and no cultures have so many adults who find it so hard either to go to sleep or wake up. Could these social facts be connected? I strongly suspect they are.” – John Holt

8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

When we try to control a child’s sleep and force them to bed at set times we interrupt their learning about their own bodies. They may begin to distrust themselves, believing that others know their body better than they do and that what they feel is unimportant. Eventually, they may lose the ability to hear their body’s tiredness signals, having had that opportunity regularly taken away from them. Children without control are very capable of knowing when they need to sleep, and less likely to resist meeting their own needs. Sure, they may require help or company to get to sleep when they’re ready, but that is different from deciding for them when they must sleep.

“…children seem to have a remarkable capacity for self-regulation. Unless, that is, we try to run their bodies for them.” -Alfie Kohn

2. It’s counterproductive

Ever heard of a circadian rhythm? That’s our internal body clock which regulates periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day and night. The thing about this is, it’s endogenously generated, meaning that it originates from within our body. It can be influenced by light and temperature, which is why we sleep during the night and wake during the day, but not much else. In that case, there is no need to dictate to anyone when they should feel sleepy, their body has that covered. In fact, it’s counterproductive! Trying to put a child to bed who is not sleepy is fighting a losing battle. Instead of the rest you are after, all you end up causing is more stress for everyone.

3. Creating unhelpful sleep associations

Have you ever laid in bed unable to get to sleep? Your mind incapable of switching off, and the longer you lay there the harder it gets to find sleep? Do you know what advice they give people suffering from insomnia in those situations? Get up out of bed and go back when you feel sleepy. Lying in bed thinking, worrying, upset, or busy doing other things is not good sleep hygiene. After many hours spent lying in bed fighting bedtime, children who are forced to bed unwillingly are likely to associate sleep with negative feelings. In the pursuit of ensuring children get enough sleep, we may actually be setting them up to dislike and resist it.

8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

4. Children have the right to decide when they will sleep

People have a right to bodily autonomy, and children are people too. How would it feel for someone else to decide when you should go to bed every night? Frustrating and disrespectful no doubt. It is the same for children. Children have the right to decide when they would like to sleep, which is not conditional upon them meeting your expectations.

I wish children could grow according to their natural pace: sleep when sleepy, wake up when rested, eat when hungry, cry when upset, play and explore without being unnecessarily interrupted; in other words, be allowed to grow and blossom as each was meant to.” — Magda Gerber

5. Learning good habits

Many people are under the assumption that to teach children that they need to get adequate sleep, they must force them into a schedule. But this is not teaching them anything except to obey orders. What happens when someone is no longer around to tell them what to do? How do they know what the best choice for them is when they’ve never had any practice making it? The way we learn to make good decisions is by being allowed to make them. By making mistakes and learning from them. By figuring it out on our own, with support if needed. Being allowed to feel tiredness after staying up too late is not a life threatening situation! Let them work out their own sleep needs by being the ones in control of their decisions.

8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

6. More connection

Evening is commonly known as the most difficult time with young children. There’s dinner and baths and stories and bedtime to get done in the small amount of time after work. Getting rid of a set ‘bedtime’ really helps slow things down and gives you more time together as a family. There’s so little time for working parents to connect with children in the evenings amongst this rush. When the time isn’t limited, things can go much more smoothly. You’re not working towards a certain time and trying to cram everything in. Kids want to connect with parents at the end of the day, especially if they have been separated. I often wonder if the problems so many have with getting children to stay in their beds is because they’re just craving that connection time. Slowing down and meeting everyone’s needs means that everyone goes to bed happy and is not resisting sleep!

7. Flexibility

8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

Having a set bed time is so restrictive! What if you have visitors? What if you want to have a family movie night? What if you’re out at an event and can’t get home in time for bed? Ditching bedtime is just so much more flexible!

8. No power struggles

Giving up bedtime means no more nightly fighting or power struggles which so many complain of! This means a more peaceful home for everyone. Sleep doesn’t become a battleground or place for children to fight for their right to autonomy.

 

There are so many great reasons to let go of a set bedtime! Ultimately, it’s about respecting children’s freedom and autonomy, with the added bonus of more peace and connection for everyone.

Still have doubts? Here’s some more reading that might help…

8 Misconceptions About Children NOT Having a Bedtime

What does bedtime look like for autonomous kids?

Why We Ditched Bedtime

20 Ways to a Better Bedtime

 

 

 

8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

 

40 thoughts on “8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime

  1. I believe there is another reason we’re so obsessed with putting our kids to bed at a certain time and it’s due to the poor work/life balance we have in our culture, often with both parents working and everything outside of work hours being rushed, causing our to feel burned out and NEEDING our offspring to be in bed so we can get the peace and quiet we feel we need.
    I think these a generational nature to this too, in that we are still a Victorian hangover period, with parenting practices (ones that make adults lives and children’s lives very separate) being inadvertently and often unknowingly passed down from parent to child, parent to child, and so on (read up on ‘Attachment Theory’ to understand more about this).

  2. Sara, I love reading all your posts and they help me strive for a more respectful approach to parenting. I find myself struggling everyday but try to assure myself that at least I’m more aware and am trying to better myself! My husband and I struggle with bedtime and naps with my 3 year old. I sometimes wonder if we didn’t “force” it maybe things would be easier for everyone…but when she hasn’t had enough sleep she is in constant tears, very demanding, and worst of all, are the constant struggles between her and her younger sister that don’t end. I don’t know how to turn that around…I am afraid of what the transition period would be like. What was it like for you during the change with how you handled sleep with your two oldest? Have you written a post about that?

    • Ah yes, the fear of the transition; I can sooo identify with that! Our 3 year old has just got to the stage where she’s OK without a nap for a few days a week so we can leave it up to her to decide now. At night times I snuggle in next to her while she drifts off, but I almost always instigate that as I know she’ll just want to keep playing until she’s then overtired and would really struggle to fall asleep. I often wonder whether we need to go through that hell for a week for her to learn for herself that she needs to listen to her body and prioritise it over play, but without the certainty of that ‘working’ i’m to scared of how that week (or more!) would be. So, also really looking forward to Sara’s response!

  3. What if it’s midnight and they still won’t go to sleep? Our children haven’t had a bedtime but nights are HORRIBLE because I turn into a witch @9, seriously…I feel it switch on the dot without looking at a clock. How can I help this situation? I have tried going to bed early myself and it backfires on me and kids think they can come in bed and jump around etc. They have always slept with us. I have a 6 month old who sleeps with me too so it makes it even trickier. I try reading books and my kids fight over who’s book gets read first then we all fight and turn out the lights mad and sad. I like e mornings though because everyone is fresh and new and all happy cuddles. I would like e some more advice on this topic of how to go about it if you don’t have a strict bedtime.

  4. So how do you do this then? What do they say and what if they’re awake until 10pm? And you’re deathly tired? I want to give this a shot but I don’t know where to start.

    • Personally, I get suggestive as it gets too late ‘do you want to go to bed yet?’ ‘its getting very late’ ‘arn’t you tired?’ ‘do you want to just sit in bed, mummy is tired’

  5. This makes me feel so much better! I thought I was just being a lazy mum! I found trying to make my kids go to sleep was so stressful, that I gave in, and just let them go to bed when they are ready. My 1 year old tends to ask to go to bed around 7:30-8pm and my 3 year old likes to go to bed around 9pm, if they have a big day they will ask to go to bed earlier. I find it lets them decide their natural rythem, as they will wake in the morning according to how much sleep they needed.

  6. Sounds sweet unless you have multiple kids on different schedules and yet the adults still need to get to work on time, attend meetings, appointments, etc those pesky real life things that require people to be somewhere at a certain time.

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  8. Sorry. I don’t agree. Kids stay up super late at times and won’t go to sleep. Kids need a bedtime routine. Adults need time to themselves after a long day at work and then playing and feeding the kids. They’re exhausted. We don’t have the energy like we used to when we were young. This article is insane. No way in hell would I follow this advice. I’m a nurse’s aide and I work full time 8 hours a day (sometimes 16 if needed). My husband is deployed overseas. On top of that, I go to school part time. My parents or my MIL watches them when needed. You think I’m going to let my kids stay up as late as they want? No. This article needs to rethink its priorities especially involving parents who work long hours. #areyouinsane #sorrynotsorry

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  10. Your right on the fact that kids at some point have to learn. But the reality is that not giving your kids a bedtime or allowing them autonomy as you call it is in my opinion lazy parenting. While yes it is great for kids to learn the cues of their bodies. They also need to be taught. By allowing them to go to bed when they want and wake up when they want isn’t reality. Only those that are unemployed can wake up whenever they want. Those with jobs have to be at work at a certain time. They get told when they have t wake up and are essentially told when they need to go to bed. For example, I have work at 7 in the morning, the doctor and research suggests I need 7-9 hours of sleep therefore I have to go to bed by midnight to get up in the morning.

    Next it will be kids have the right to decide if they want to go school or if they want to eat. Kids are kids and Parents need to teach them that they need to sleep at certain times, eat at certain times.

    For now I will keep the bedtimes and their routines in place because I am the parent and they are the child. Secondly when we do let our oldest stay up later he ends up being cranky and whiny the next day. Thirdly, I work, go to school full time come home cook, clean, go coach gymnastics then come home and snuggle with the kids and put them to bed. I need quiet time for myself before I head to bed so I can get up and do it the next day.

    • I think it was quite clear that this is written from a homeschooler’s perspective, where having to be at school/work on time in the morning isn’t an issue, therefore allowing for that little bit of flexibility.
      No need to call it lazy parenting just because one aspect of child’s life is not being dictated by an adult.

    • And also, you seem to have missed the point about teaching children self-regulation / creating learning opportunities for your kids to learn how to manage their time properly, e.g., listen to their body, accept responsibilities etc, instead of relying on an authoritative figure telling them they must do as they’re told.

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  14. I would really love to try this, my daughter was 2 in June. I think it would result in lots of late nights, which is fine, but we all have to get up and out of the house early-ish in the mornings…. My daughter often needs to be carried to sleep, her mind keeps running while her body needs to stop.
    Any advice would be so gratefully received.
    We co-sleep too, anyone who doesn’t is missing out IMO 😁

    • If they don’t need to get up early for school, i.e., they can get plenty of sleep, what would the issue be?
      Although the presumption is that, as with most adults, their natural response will kick in with sundown, so that unless you live in, say, Stockholm, your kid will be sleepy well before midnight.

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  17. I absolutely love this article. I have done the exact thing for over 25 years. I have NEVER had a bedtime for any of my 6 kids, ages 25, 23, 21, 14, 8, and 6. I also NEVER had any nap times for them as babies/toddlers or any age. They would sleep if they were tired and if not, they didn’t sleep until they were. The oldest 3 went through public school and 2 of them on the college and all 3 onto jobs. They have self-regulated their own sleep to whatever worked for each of them. It has worked very well for them. My younger 3 are being unschooled, and they also have been given the control over when they sleep. It is winter in Michigan, so their sleep tends to shift to staying up late and sleeping in late, which is not a problem. They still get as much sleep as they want and need. As we approach our Disney World trip in March, I hope that they will gradually shift their sleeping to earlier, so we can take advantage of the park hours. I mentioned this to an old-fashioned person, who chimed in about how he felt they ought to have their sleeping changed all along. I’m so glad that we are free to make decisions with our own kids. I cannot imagine someone else controlling when I sleep. I certainly won’t control when my kids sleep. A neighbor of ours puts her kids to bed while the sun is still up and one day she yelled across the yard to my son and one of his friends that were playing, “Don’t you have a bedtime kid?” It was because her kids were forced to be in bed at an ungodly insane hour and they heard the other kids laughing and playing on the trampoline. No, we are proud to say that we don’t have bedtimes. It works very well for us and we are able to make adjustments for events and activities that we choose to do.

  18. My 3yo daughter enjoys bedtime and tells me when she wants to go to bed… which is usually around 8pm… because I created a peaceful routine with her since birth… because I am her parent. Children trust their parents to know what is safe and healthy for them until they can form opinions about their health and body on their own, or at least question your logic and employ critical thinking on their own behalf. That trust is critically important. ‘This is hot, you will burn yourself if you touch it.’ My daughter trusts those words. I mean, yes, she could choose to touch it anyways… that’s body autonomy. Our brains develop rapidly as children. Even so, concepts need to be delivered at a rate appropriate for your specific child’s level of comprehension. ‘Do you want candy or broccoli with your dinner?’ Health benefits; Not something a young child can much grasp. ‘Are you ready for bed or would you like to stay awake unattended until 2am while everyone is asleep? Up to you.’ Cognitive development and supervision; Not concepts small children can grasp. A healthy sleep routine is as important as any hygienic practice. Poor sleep patterns affect weight, attention span, mood, and memory retention. Clinical psychologist Candice Alfano found there is a link between lack of sleep, ‘being tired’, and depression later in life. There is a balance between showing a child how to make healthy choices, providing an example, and then allowing them to experience and recognize on their own the benefits they’ve trusted you to make since day one. Body autonomy is a delicate subject that shifts with every age… respecting their body is something that will happen naturally as their brain and body develop. As children discover new facets of their character, body, and spirit they will indirectly communicate with you what level of body autonomy they’re eager to experiment with. The goal is to let them find what feels best for them after you’ve demonstrated and adhered to a stable and healthy routine. The goal is to raise adults who are capable of making healthy decisions because they have a passion to do so, because they have learned the importance of treating themselves with thought and care… not to simply make choices for themselves because they feel a certain way and can. The goal is to pass the torch during every beautiful stage and chapter of their life with you as their guide. So, I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

    • You make a very reasoned argument re bedtimes and candy. I agree with you that those are the ideals for all children that are raised the Western way.
      You are right that 3 year old doesn’t understand the concept of health. But a child who is trusted be fully autonomous over the food intake since birth will ‘know’ (feel) what food is or isn’t ‘right’ for them at any given moment. Just like as adults we ‘know’ when we’ve had enough sugar / coffee etc. But a child has to re-learn that as they get older. I say re-learn because it is something that they are born with, which we force them to unlearn by telling them to ignore their own bodies by telling them when and what they can / can’t eat.
      Likewise with sleep. It sounds like what you have with your 3 year old is great. But as you say, you have given her a routine since birth. So she has had to learn from the word go to trust your judgement instead of her own. In tribal communities babies and children sleep whenever they want. They are not put on a routine. This would be VERY inconvenient (almost impossible) for many of us in the West, so I fully sympathise. I also have a rough routine for my daughter. But for those for whom it is not so inconvenient, who have the time and space and support to be able to allow such lack of structure, it is not only possible but healthy to allow the child (at any age) full autonomy over their sleep, because they never have to unlearn to trust their own innate feelings on when to sleep, which they were born with.

  19. What if your children are almost falling asleep playing a video game, but force themselves to stay awake, yet have to be up by 6:00 am to catch the school bus after staying up til 2:00 am? Just take away the video game?

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  22. Not saying this wouldn’t work but…it won’t work with my son, who has ADHD. He is completely backwards on almost everything. Stimulants like caffeine calm him down and when he gets tired, he goes feral. His brain is already trying to work against him with every other thing he does, he NEEDS a structure and routine to bedtime. Just saying, if your child/children have ADHD tendencies this may work against you.

    • I get this whole self regulation and I love the idea behind it. I have tried a consultative approach with my six year old son, but it really doesn’t work. I tried it various times and he will either stay up and watch tv until around midnight or fall asleep on sofa(which is another issue). He still has school next day. If I let him self regulate other things such as food.. he would scoff sweets and ice cream or other non-nutritious items. I suspect that the person writing this have children that have that inclination already to self regulate.. i have tried everything to help my son to self regulate but nothing really works. I know because as an adult I find it hard to self regulate myself and know where he got his genes from..

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  24. My grandpa told me when he was a child there was no set bedtime or wake up time. From the early age of 6 his father always said “I don’t care when you go to sleep but your better be up soon enough to help milk the cows before getting on the bus”. Grandpa said he quickly learned he had to be in bed by 5:30am to accomplish this, and he knew his mom and dad weren’t going to badger him to go to bed or get up. If he slept in than he spent the morning hungry, caused the family to lose some of their only source of income (milk and butter) during a great depression which directly effected him, or he’d miss school and risk being illiterate. His parents sounded both strict and laissez faire at the same time.

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