Tips for Helping your Littles to Bed Earlier
Updated: May 15, 2020
We’ve all heard about the importance of early bedtimes for our young children. A 2016 study published in The Journal Of Pediatrics found that preschool aged children with earlier bedtimes were half as likely as preschoolers with later bedtimes to develop obesity in adolescence. Other studies have linked pediatric sleep deficits to anxiety and depression as well as to impaired cognitive development. But, this article isn't about scare tactics or meant to put additional pressure on parents who are stretched to their max as it is.
This article is about what motivates ME to observe an early bedtime when possible and tips on how busy parents can actually make an earlier bedtime happen. At the end of a long day, the researched factors mentioned above are not what motivate me to get my 5 year olds to bed by 6:30/7pm. Yes, you read that correctly! What does motivate me to aim for an earlier bedtime is their sweet, and usually happy, innocent faces melting into restless, unsatisfied, demanding, and generally unpleasant to be around little puddles around 5pm. You see, we just started Kindergarten over here and with the long days of learning and activity they are absolutely exhausted by the time they return home to me! I know my kids better than anyone else in the entire world knows them. I know what they’re capable of and how they look and act when they are at their best and most well rested. You know this same information about your own children. Think about how you perceive your own children around 5pm. Are they driving you absolutely nuts and so you plop them in front of the television so you can have 10 minutes of quiet time to put dinner on the table? Or are they easily engaged with you, pleasant to be around, and able to focus on an activity like reading a book, playing with blocks, or sitting in the kitchen and having a conversation with you? If you truly enjoy them around this time of the evening, read no further, your children are probably well rested with a great bedtime!
If your children do not seem their happy selves starting around 5pm this is your indicator that they are possibly over tired. This can look like being overly emotional, moody, hyperactive, restless, fidgety, inattentive, more picky than usual while eating dinner, and/or resisting bedtime (overtired children are usually much harder to put to bed). I mentioned above that my children are both 5 years old, but this indicator works for babies (older than 4 months adjusted) all the way to school aged children. The best way to ensure your children are getting enough sleep is to utilize an early bedtime. In fact, the first half of the night is when we spend the most amount of time in deep sleep, which is the type of sleep necessary to feel refreshed the following day. You can read more about that here.
I know what you’re thinking; “but if I put my kids to bed an hour earlier, won’t they wake up an hour earlier?” They shouldn’t because it doesn’t work that way. When kids are overtired, it actually makes it harder for them to settle themselves to sleep and stay asleep. When they are better rested and practicing good sleep hygiene, it’s easier for them to self settle and stay asleep. In a few cases I have seen kids wake up earlier and this is usually because their bodies are programed to sleep for a certain number of sleep cycles or because they're getting ready to drop a nap.
The following tips are for any parents who are struggling to make it through the end of the day with their overtired children. There are so many things to do in such a short period of time. Whether you work from home like I do, are a SAHP, or work outside the house, getting dinner on the table, everyone dressed, bathed, read to, and into bed at a reasonable time seems like an impossible endeavor most days. Some of you reading this have childcare providers and some of you do not. So take the tips that apply to your situation and leave the rest!
1. Outsource your End of the Day Routine
If your child is at daycare or you have a daycare provider in your home, outsource as much of your end of the day routine as you can. Not the cute and cuddly parts of the actual bedtime routine like reading stories. Those are just for you! I’m talking about the bath, the dinner, the dinner prep, the pajamas, etc. Some daycares will feed your children dinner if you ask. That way when you get home, you can focus on quality family time.
2. Eat Dinner After the Children go to Bed.
I know, you wanted to eat dinner as a family. You will, but in certain seasons of life the benefits of early bedtime outweigh the benefits of eating as a family. You might disagree. Here’s my argument though: if your mealtime is a battle because your child is fidgety, inattentive, fussy, hyperactive, emotional, and restless is that family time really meaningful? Wouldn’t it be nicer to instead spend some pleasant time reading and cuddling and then enjoy a happier child the following day? Have your daycare providers feed your child an early dinner or feed then a simplified version of your own dinner yourself to speed up the process. Then enjoy some time with your partner eating dinner while the kids are in bed. I promise it’s not forever!
3. Cut out Tubby Time
I will frequently advise parents to switch bathing to the morning or afternoon instead of at bedtime. This advice works great for parents who have in home childcare or who work from home and can swing a bath in the morning or at some point during the day. Another option is to cut down on how many baths you give your children per week. Most children really do not need a bath every single night and getting to bed earlier even just one or two nights per week can help! Lots of parents will tell me they feel like bathing as part of their bedtime routine is relaxing and they hesitate to move it to a different part of the day or skip it in it’s entirety. Bath time can definitely be relaxing for babies. But if you have an older baby or toddler or kindergarten aged child, how relaxing is their bath time actually? In our house, it’s lots of splashing and playing so it isn’t quite the winding down relaxing activity it once was. Again, this advice won’t work for all of you all of the time. I have two 5-year old boys, so there are some nights where bath time just is not avoidable!
4. Meal Prep and Menu Plan
Meal prepping is all the rage these days. When you’ve had a busy week though, it can be so hard to buckle down over the weekend and figure out what’s on the menu for the entire busy week ahead. But taking a few hours to do this will cut down on how busy the coming week will feel. I use the notes section on my phone but there are lots of apps out there that can also help with meal planning. When you do cook, try to make a double batch and freeze the leftovers. If meal prep/planning is absolutely not your thing, you can do what we used to do when our kids were younger. We would eat dinner after they went to bed each night and cook enough food so that we had leftovers to feed the boys a quick dinner the following night. We also love our grocery delivery service when we don’t have an entire afternoon to spend meal planning, shopping, and meal prepping.
5. Streamline Your Bedtime Routine
If your baby or toddler takes longer than 30 minutes to be put to bed including pajamas, brushing teeth, potty/diaper, and stories it’s taking too long! You want to create a safe, and positive association with sleep that will carry you through the ages. The earlier you start with a streamlined routine the better! I cannot emphasize to you enough how much easier it is to work on this BEFORE preschool hits. Remember your routine should be a cue that it’s time to sleep and not a means to sleep. You can set the schedule, the environment, and the routine, but it’s your child’s responsibility to finish the job and actually fall asleep!
6. Sleep Train
If your routine is longer than 30 minutes or your child is resisting bedtime it may be time to try some sleep training. Sleep training involves an ideal schedule, an ideal sleep-conducive environment, a method of responding to your child, and the patience and consistency of a saint. Lots of parents are able to find and institute a sleep training method on their own and others will hire a professional to help.
7. Take the Pressure Off!
Trust me when I tell you that I get how hard the end of the day is. I work from home and when my husband gets home it’s crunch time between then and bedtime. If you can get your children to bed even just 15 minutes earlier, that will help. In fact, when parents express concern that an earlier bedtime will result in an earlier morning wake-up I’ll have them start sliding bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments. It doesn’t have to be an hour earlier every night. Maybe you find that Wednesday nights you get home earlier and you can swing an earlier bedtime that one night per week. Just do what you can. We are all doing our best!
Early bedtimes are not forever. I like to think about bedtime as a wave that rises and falls over time and depends on the season your child is currently experiencing. When your children drop a nap, whether from three to two naps a day, two to one nap day per day, or even one to no naps per day bedtime usually needs to move earlier temporarily to help ensure a well-rested state. Once they’ve fully adjusted to the nap transition bedtime can slowly move later again. For other children, when school starts bedtime needs to drift earlier. As they adjust over the course of several months, then bedtime can slide later as tolerated. For our family, we’ll be aiming for 6:30/7pm bedtime as long as we need to until our kiddos are fully adjusted to their new kindergarten schedule and return to being their happy selves at the end of the day. You know your children best so you make the call for your family! As always, if you need help strategizing how to streamline your end of the day and/or bedtime routine I’m happy to help!