“Listen to the desires of your children. Encourage them and then give them the autonomy to make their own decision.” -Denis Waitley
What does bedtime look like in a family where there is no enforced bedtime? How does it come about? Is there any routine?
It’s hard to imagine if you’ve never experienced it, but it’s really not complicated at all.
Here’s what bedtime looks like in our house for four autonomous children…
Our children are currently aged 8, 6, 3, and 2 years.
In our house, there tends to be a rhythm to the evening which has developed naturally.
We all have dinner together where we talk about our days, what we did, our favourite parts, anything that we didn’t like, what we’re grateful for, and anything else.
After dinner, it’s bath or shower time. Everyone is free to choose to bath or not, but they mostly do nightly.
The after bath time can be different each night. Sometimes there’s still a lot of energy left so there’s running and playing, roughhousing, skating, riding bikes, and general chaos!
Other times we’re worn out and there’s quiet play, stories, drawing, snuggles, Minecraft, or resting in bed and talking. I diffuse some calming essential oils to help everyone wind down.
At some point, there’s some TV. The big girls have a couple of shows they like to watch each night; currently Horrible Histories and Deadly 60.
Around 7.30pm Miss 2 seems tired. She asks for a cuddle or a feed and I ask her if she’s tired and ready for sleep. She says ‘yes’ and then says goodnight to everyone, helps me make a cup of tea, and then breastfeeds to sleep.
The older three usually choose sleep at around 8pm. They will simply say they are tired and ready for bed. We have a family bedroom with two queen mattresses on the floor where we sleep with the youngest two, and a bunk bed where the older two girls sleep. Their Dad lies in bed with them until they fall asleep.
And that’s it! It happens so naturally, with no fuss, and everyone feeling respected and able to make their own choices.
Bedtime looks different in every family. Here are some other examples from families without a bedtime…
“After dinner, everyone does their own thing. Miss 4 and Mr (almost) 2 frequently look at their books or play games on their iPads. Miss 4 also just started playing Minecraft on her computer with friends. Mr 2 will come to me when he’s tired, usually between 7pm and 9pm, and I will put him to bed. When Miss 4 is tired, usually between 8pm and 10pm, depending on how big a day we’ve had, she will say goodnight, give us a kiss, and put herself to bed. Sometimes it’s earlier, sometimes later. We have never had bedtimes and never had any struggle whatsoever. Everyone simply goes to bed when they are tired (or really tired if they are really interested in what they are doing) and it all works itself out.”
“We’ve never had a set bedtime. Since they were born we’ve followed their lead (with a couple of minor but still regrettable sleep deprived missteps along the way where we let our frustrations get the better of us before realising that respecting their autonomy was too important). They create their own routine which inevitably changes when their needs change i.e. they drop a nap. Now at 2.5 and 4.5 they are slowly syncing their routines together. Often, of late, they choose to go to bed at the same time which is generally between 8pm and 9pm. Tonight Miss 4 was ready to go to bed before Mr 2. We have always bed-shared and cuddled to sleep. A few times over the last week she’s gone to sleep by herself in her own bed so her routine appears to be transitioning again. Tonight she chose the big bed and cuddles. Five minutes later Mr 2 walks in and says he’s ready for bed too. The three of us cuddle, Mr 2 has a breastfeed. Another five minutes later he’s asleep. Tonight, Miss 4 takes a little longer. Her mind is busy. She asks lots of questions. She wants to know which friends we’ll see tomorrow. She’s excited. We talk for a few minutes then when she’s ready she rolls over and asks me to rub her back. Ten minutes later she’s asleep. Every night is a little different but what remains the same is our trust in them to listen to their bodies and sleep when they are ready to.
When you choose autonomy you choose flexibility. Like us, their needs change daily, their routines change frequently. Miss 4 went through a short period of staying up until 10pm, once she stayed up until midnight (the result of a late afternoon nap) which was challenging for us but not a reason to force bedtime. Why? Because they will sleep when they need it. They always do. This isn’t to say we didn’t talk to her about it, not only how it affected her body but how it affected us as one of us would stay up with her. Before long, after a few particularly busy days, her rhythm shifted and she naturally moved her bedtime earlier.”
“We cuddle our big boy until he falls asleep (nearly 3) and I breastfeed/rock our little boy (7 months). Our little one has coslept with us from day one and our big boy joins us in the big bed once he wakes up in the night (times vary every night). No pressure to sleep alone, no pressure to sleep through.”
“In our home, each individual determines for themselves when they are ready for sleep. It can be pretty variable… anytime from 7pm to 11pm depending on what we are doing but mostly around 9. Our kids also tend to wake over a pretty variable window too. We don’t have a large number of commitments that would prevent this and those that we have, we undertake understanding that. We are available to our children at any time to give them company for falling asleep so they just let us know when they are ready. In bed we chat and laugh and cuddle and do whatever, often we also listen to relaxation music. Sometimes sleep comes after 5 minutes, other times it could be an hour. If a parent needs to be up early the next day (I see a personal trainer 3 mornings a week and my partner has work), we just explain that to them and they understand that means they can come to bed with us when we need to or they can stay up on their own (if they need something they can, of course, seek us out though), at this point they have always chosen to come to bed too (this I imagine could shift as they age). We also just talk about it if we have something early the next day we are all going to and figure out what makes sense together.”
“My daughter is eighteen months old and bedshares with us. During the winter we have our queen and single mattress side by side on the floor in the living room with the gas heater. Our ‘bedtime’ is usually just us all snuggled in bed reading books and unwinding, more often than not, she’ll curl up on me and feed to sleep. Otherwise, she’ll get up and get busy with some quiet play. If she does that, I just light a candle and let her do her thing in the mellow light and she’s usually back snuggled up with us within half an hour, sound asleep. When she was younger and we felt more pressure to conventionally parent, we tried ‘fighting’ her to sleep (never CIO), but soon reverted back to our norm after we realised it took far longer to settle her when she was distressed and left all three of us feeling emotionally drained and felt really wrong. We’re not too fussed on a specific time either. She usually goes down to sleep anytime from 7.30-9.30 and that’s fine with us. If she’s having a really unsettled night, we’ll pop a mattress in the TV room and watch Shrek and cuddle until she’s asleep, then carry her back to the big bed.”
“Our bedtime routine usually starts around 7 with showers and baths if needed, brushing teeth and prayers. Two girls share a room and the boys share a room. The girls like their snuggle time with Dad before bed. They all play in their rooms (where the majority of the toys in the house are) until they fall asleep. The girls prefer their own beds but the boys will frequently sleep together. They tend to sleep with the sun’s schedule. In the winter they sleep in a little more. That means right now they’re usually up between 6 and 6:45. Our 2-year-old girl comes to our room between 1 and 3 times a night, but still prefers her own bed. So, she’ll nurse and usually go back to her own bed when she’s finished. Normally our mornings are met with snuggles with anywhere from 1 to four kids piled in. Oh, and one night each week the kids get a “hang out” where they have one on one time with us and we play a game, read, play imaginative games etc. We love the time to connect with them one on one!”
“Our 3.5-year-old has no forced bed time. She has a bath and teeth after dinner etc. We go to bed and read a heap of books of her choice, sometimes I’ll choose one too. I love our book time. So many discussions and funny moments. Sometimes we watch a tv show together before books. We have a little chat together and she falls asleep, it’s usually around 9pm. Sometimes I’ll put her in her bed, she has a tendency to kick me in her sleep, sometimes I leave her. She always wakes at around 2am and jumps back in. She wakes up every day at around 7.30-8.”
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