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