What does bedtime look like for autonomous kids?
“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.”
Want to learn more about giving up bedtime? Check out these posts…
8 Reasons NOT to Give Kids a Bedtime
8 Misconceptions About Children NOT Having a Bedtime
Hi, I hope this is the right place to post this!
I am trying my hardest to respectfully parent my little boy (2 next month)
He loves to do as much as he can himself. And I’m happy to allow him the freedom to do this but sometimes I question if I give him too much freedom / choice (these are usually in my moments of self doubt as I don’t have any friends that following respectful parenting ways)
1. Teeth Brushing, he will happily brush teeth as long as he selects a toothbrush from the pot, could be his tooth brush but usually mine or daddy’s. He will then swap between his selected brush and the one that I’m using through out the teeth brushing. He will also only brush his teeth if can put his own tooth paste on the brush. If I try to put the toothpaste on for him or ask him to use his own brush it usually ends up with my little boy throwing the toothbrushes around, getting cross and refusing to brush his teeth.
2. Car Seat, I let him help me open the door, he then climbs in to car on his own (but I feel this is only to leap around the car pressing buttons. I usually request that he climbs in to the back seat. If he doesn’t I say that Mummy will have to put you in to the backseat. I then ask him to climb in to his seat and ask him to put his buckles on or help Mummy put his buckles on. He loves to do this but usually he is expecting the argument and he will begin to kick and struggle as I try to encourage him in to the back seat, this is usually followed by a few mins of temper where he refuses to stay in his seat and will try to climb out. After a few mins he is usually happy to help me with buckles and will sit down on his own accord.
Sometimes I worry that I’m not being firm enough but I really do like to treat him as his own person – I have to draw the line with the car seat because I have tried to allow him a few mins exploring but that has led to him locking himself in car (Police had to be called to smash the window!) He has opened my driver door and bolted out the other side and between us in a struggle managed to knock the hand break off and roll into another car!!!
What do other people think?
I think it sounds like you’re doing a great job. Does your son brush his teeth to a standard you feel happy with? Mine (15 months) will *occasionally* chew on a toothbrush for a bit, but it’s not exactly thorough. But he HATES having his teeth brushed and I don’t blame him as it inevitably ends up with me having to pin him down (as gently as possible!) I hate this too as it is horrible and stressful for us both and goes against all my ideals for him to have bodily autonomy – but feel I’m backed into a corner on it because, you know, it’s my job to look after his health. I’m desperately hoping that when he acquires more language we’ll be able to ‘problem-solve’ this together, but I’m also desperately worried that by this time it will have become a control issue.
Sorry to offload as a reply to your post! I’m in a similar position to you in that my immediate circle of mum-friends don’t really see what the problem is, and their advice is to just get on with forcing it. I would love some advice / reassurance from Sara or other parents who are trying to do respectful parenting, but it all seems to be geared towards older children and I’m at a loss with regards to what to do right now.
Thank you for your reply! Yes I’m fairly happy with how well he brushes his teeth, some nights are better than others but as long as there aren’t too many nights where it’s a bit too quick then I’m happy to let it slide.
since my original post his teeth brushing skills have improved a little, he uses his tooth brush a little more rather than mine! And I think that has come from not forcing the issue, he seems happiest when he is allowed to make his own decisions.
I feel the same with our car seat issue as you do with your teeth brushing. I think there a couple of things that I think we have to step in with every now and again. I’m definitely not an expert about respectful parenting but I’m trying my best to learn and bring my children up in a fair and happy way and I think that’s all we can do!
Thank goodness for lovely blogs like this and all of the lovely readers – it’s nice to have somewhere to turn to, when you don’t know anyone trying to do things respectfully
We had a similar issue with our little one and I managed to resol e it by letting him brush my teeth while I brushed his…he loved it&now at 2&a half he trots off to the bathroom in the evening and just does it himself-we have to be really switched on to notice him disappear (amongst his chaotic brothers) so that we get to have a little brush too!
I know it’s been a while since you posted, but I figured I’d share for others who stumble across this post.
The way we handle brushing teeth is my almost 2 yr old let’s me brush her teeth first, so I can make sure it’s fully clean. Then, she’ll brush her teeth as I brush mine. She actually loves brushing her teeth because of this. We’ve been doing this since she’s been old enough to switch from the little finger brush. She likes to mimic how I brush my teeth, and she thinks it’s funny when I spit it into the sink, too.
As for car seats, we still struggle with that.
I have a 5 mo old and 3 yr old. He has always co slept with myself or my husband. They now share a bed in his room and I have baby.
Lately he wants to go back to me reading him to sleep. He usually is saying it’s bedtime between 6-8 but we follow a rhythm and he doesn’t fight it mainly bc we’ve mostly dropped his nap.
Baby gets tired around same time so….my question to the bedsharing families is how does it work if your have to lay and nurse baby to sleep while reading to older * we use a headlamp on red light*?
I’m worried it’s too distracting for 5 months to not just nurse and be quiet in the dark.
What about children in school who are not schooling at home?
I think they deserve respect too and to listen to their own bodies.
Hi there, I’m interested in where reading books fits in. The play / chatting before children say they’re ready for sleep sounds wonderful. I’m just wondering practically where reading fits in. When they’re tired, do you go with them to bed then and read then, or do you read after bathing and then they play until they’re ready for sleep? Do you read to them individually or together?
Hi there, I’m interested in where reading books fits in. The play / chatting before children say they’re ready for sleep sounds wonderful. I’m just wondering practically where reading fits in. When they’re tired, do you go with them to bed then and read then, or do you read after bathing and then they play until they’re ready for sleep? Do you read to them individually or together? Thanks
But it sounds as if all these children have a bedtime and a steady routine, just listening more to their signals.
Tribal people don’t fuss over bedtime like we do, but they all follow a natural routine and go to bed, get up about the same time everyday. After dinner they will usually sit together around a fire, until everybody will go to their own and there will not really be more to do and they will fall asleep and the same in the morning. Plus their lifestyle is not interrupted by modern day conviniences, screens, phones, tv, ipad disturbing our sleep.
I think children need a bedtime + – a couple of hours and depending on if they have school or it is holiday.
When I was a teenager I chose my own bedtime. I didn’t listen to my body, some nights I slept at 2, I was ever tired at school haha.
This is a game changer. I’m going to be saving your blog and following your ethos.
It has always felt wrong but ‘it’s just the rules’ to enforce a bedtime mealtime, structure everything. But I bloody hate being told when to do stuff, so why does my pure clean slate creative child have to be different?
I am a sole parent since pregnancy, I have chronic pain and mental illnesses. The thought of just parenting with intuition and allowing my child to direct her day gives me such a boost of relief and self confidence in my ability to do this alone.
I have terrible anxiety, so following the rules and worrying that I’m failing if I don’t has been troubling me a lot. To see that letting go and letting the child make their own decisions is beautiful and makes for a happy family is such a lifeline for me. Thankyou so so so much.
I love your blog. I have two girls 4 and nearly 7. I found that they pretty much had their own schedule up until a few months ago. I am going to unschool this year and I love that it will give us the flexibility we had before. I want to remove bedtimes, not that they were ever set in stone before, but I find that they just want to stay up watching tv. I feel that because I don’t want to impose something on them our usual routine that would be calming has gone out the window. I suppose I have to find what works for us. My questions are how should I handle times when they are overly tired? Or is that just a phase we have to go through? Sometimes they’re tired and they’re just hyper and crash once they hit the bed. Other times they refuse to go to bed but are being mean to each other, yelling, whining, etc. Or maybe one is refusing to sleep and won’t let the other one who is tired sleep. Also, how do you handle if you are tired? I am often solo parenting and if I’m really tired I need to honour my needs as well. So what to do if you’re wiped and the kids just want to keep going, given their young ages? I appreciate the input.
I would love to read the response to this comment! I have the same questions too!
Thank you very much for a very inspiring read. I will definitely try to skip bedtime.
But I have a question about naps during the day. How did you approach it? Did your children also express themselves whether they needed naps during the day?
My daughter is 2 years old and still naps during the day, but it takes a long time for her to fall asleep and it requires long walks in the pram.
In the evening she can easily be up until 10-11 pm until we as parents decide to put her to bed.
Every day she tries to be put down for a nap in the nursery, but it also takes at least 30 minutes to fall asleep.
Best regards Carina