A vast number of the sleep issues I encounter are products of a bedtime that is too late. The awake time between the last nap of the day and bedtime is the most sensitive. What I mean by this is that if we are putting baby down too late, stretching baby out too long, it is a recipe for nightwakings, a restless sleep, and an early morning wake-up. Therefore, it is vital that we are really 'nailing' bedtime and that we aren't keeping baby up too late. What time would you put an 8 year old to bed? Likely not at 10:00pm, right? Then why should a little baby, only months old, have a bedtime that late? It should be the exact opposite - babies should be going to bed much earlier than older children as their sleep needs are exponentially more than a school-aged child. Below, I hope to help you figure out what your baby's ideal bedtime is and whether a too-late bedtime is the cause of your sleep problems.
Why is an early bedtime important?
Sleep coaching helps teach baby how to fall asleep independently. Just because a child knows how to sleep, doesn't mean they will sleep through the night. In order to help our babies to consistently sleep through the night (and I mean an age-appropriate length of time, see my blog here for what sleeping through the night means at different ages) our children's needs must be in sync with their natural sleep rhythms.
Parents may think that because their baby is still clocking 11-12 hours of nightsleep with a 9pm-9am schedule that this is working well for them. While it's true that a small percentage of babies, about 10%, do well with a later bedtime, if your child has multiple nightwakings and rarely does longer than a 3 hour stretch at night, then this late bedtime is in fact not working for your child.
Many parents may think that their baby just naturally rises later in the morning, but if baby is up several times a night, the 'sleeping in' is baby trying to catch up on lost sleep. A true natural wake-up time is only evident once the child is well-rested and sleeping through the night.
Should I use a 'set' bedtime for my child?
While there are many studies out there that prove that a consistent, or 'set', bedtime is important for children, these studies are for children much older - those who no longer nap during the day. It is very important that once our children drop their last nap that they have a consistent bedtime every single night. This consistent bedtime has been shown to help children regulate themselves, develop positive behaviors, and function successfully at home and in the community. Inconsistent (and especially too late) bedtimes have been shown to have long-term effects on behavior - and none of them good. So while it is important to have consistency with older children, babies need more flexibility with bedtime. Bedtime should vary depending on the day's naps, activity level of the day, and the previous nightsleep. Therefore, bedtime can vary by as much as two hours, especially during nap transitions.
So how do I know when I should put my baby to bed for the night?
As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it is of utmost importance that the stretch from the last nap to bedtime is not too long as this will cause fragmented nightsleep. Below, I will outline how long that last stretch should be, and as well, how many naps on average that babies need at each age. Keep in mind as well, that if the last nap was very short, you may need to shorten the awake time even more.
0-2 months: babies this age sleep around the clock and have 4 or more naps every day. Bedtime in newborns is naturally late, usually around 9:00pm or later, but it is important to start moving the bedtime earlier around 6/8 weeks. By 2 months, baby's bedtime should be between 6:00-8:00pm and should occur about 1 hour after the last nap ends.
3 months: babies this age should be on a solid 4 nap schedule with the last nap of the day ending by 5:00pm. Bedtime should be no later than 1.5 hours after the last nap ends. Remember, this is asleep by time so we want to put baby down 15 minutes prior to this to allow him time to fall asleep. So, this means that bedtime should not be much later than 6:30pm.
4 months: This is the age where babies will transition from 4 naps to 3 naps. This might mean that your baby will flip-flop back and forth between 4 naps and 3 naps depending on what time she woke up in the morning, and the quality of the day's naps. If it is a 3 nap day, it is likely you will be needing an early bedtime. Do not be afraid of an early bedtime during nap transitions - it will be your saving grace! At 4 months, all naps should be ending by 5:00pm with bedtime happening about 2-2.25 hours after the last nap ends. So again, this means that bedtime should not be much later than 7:15pm.
5 months: Babies at this age should be solidly on a 3 nap schedule. All naps should be ending by 5:00pm and bedtime should occur no later than 2-2.5 hours after the last nap ends. This means that bedtime will be around 7:00-7:30pm which is a very age-appropriate bedtime considering you just lost one entire sleep period when you transitioned from 4 naps to 3, and babies this age still need 11-12 hours of nightsleep with 2 nightfeedings.
6/7 months: Babies still need 3 naps at this age and most stay on a 3 nap schedule until 8/9 months of age. Naps should be ending by 5:00pm with bedtime happening 2.25-2.75 hours after the last nap ends. So a bedtime of no later than 7:45pm is age-appropriate.
8/9 months: This is the age where most babies will drop their 3rd nap and move to a 2 nap schedule. This nap transition also means that we want to use a super early bedtime on the days where we can't fit in a 3rd nap or baby refuses it entirely. Do not be afraid of putting your child down to bed as early as 4:45pm. This does not mean that baby will be up at 4:00 in the morning! Remember, less daysleep = more nightsleep. You have just lost an entire sleep period so baby will need to make up for this loss of sleep during the night. Our goal with babies younger than 9 months of age is to protect nightsleep at all costs. There is no advantage to a late catnap and thus a later bedtime if baby is up every 3-4 hours at night crying. All naps should be ending by 4:00pm with bedtime occurring 3-3.5 hours after the last nap ends. This means a bedtime no later than 7:30pm.
10-18 months: This section is for babies within this age range but still on 2 naps. Most babies keep 2 naps until 13-18 months, with the average being 15 months. Do not be too quick to drop that second nap as the longer we can hold off this transition, the smoother it will be. Again, all naps should be ending by 4:00pm with bedtime happening between 3-4 hours after the last nap ends. Note: we would want to use the lower end of that range for younger babies closer to 10-12 months. As well, as we approach the 2-1 nap transition the afternoon nap will shrink and become less restful. This means that you will want to shorten the time between this nap and bedtime as well to keep baby well-rested. Bedtime should be no later than 7:00-8:00pm. If you are finding that baby starts to wake frequently at night or earlier in the morning than usual, try scaling back bedtime even more, possibly to even 2.5-3 hours after the last nap ends. This is a normal pattern as we get closer to dropping the second nap.
13-18 months: This section is for babies who have transitioned to 1 nap. At the beginning of the transition, the stretch between nap and bedtime will be longer as we push the morning nap later and later. Once the one nap is solidly occurring around 12:00pm, we would want bedtime to be occurring about 4.5-5 hours after the nap ends. And as always, naps should be ending by 4:00pm.
19 months-3/4 years: Baby's one nap will be well-established and consistent at this point and should be occurring around 12:30-1:30pm every single day. Most children keep one nap until 3 years of age or beyond. At this point we still do not want to be using a set bedtime, and instead bedtime should occur 4.5-5 hours after the nap ends. The nap should always be ending by 4:00pm or even earlier if you are finding that the nap is pushing bedtime too late. You may have to start waking the child up at 3:00 to maintain a bedtime of around 8:00pm. It is normal for bedtime to become later the longer the child keeps their nap.
3 years and beyond: This is the average age when a child drops their last nap. Even though the child is not napping anymore, it is very important that you still institute a mid-afternoon quiet time to help the child regroup and recharge for the day. If you notice that your child has a fussy time around 2-4pm, that is when they should be in their bedroom for 45 minutes of quiet time. Now that the child is no longer napping, we will want to establish a consistent bedtime. In order to find the ideal bedtime at this age, we must keep in mind the total sleep requirements of children. At 3-5 years of age, children still need 11-13 hours of sleep every single day. So, if your child wakes up at 7:00am, they need to be asleep for the night between 6:00-8:00pm. Experiment with the bedtime and if you notice it is very difficult to get your child to sleep at 8:00pm, move the bedtime earlier as it is likely you are missing their optimal sleep window and they are overtired by that point. As well, what is their mood like during the day? That is the most important indication of whether a preschool/school-aged child is getting enough sleep. Do they have a short attention span, or are irritable, moody, cranky, or extra defiant? Try moving that bedtime earlier to see if it helps.
It can seem daunting to move your child's bedtime earlier when previously they were going to sleep much later but it is very important in order to ensure good quality, healthy, and restorative nightsleep. Make sure that if you are working to move the bedtime earlier, that you have a consistent and soothing bedtime routine in place to signal to the child that this is in fact bedtime and not another nap. At the beginning, you may want to do a bath every single night as this is often a surefire cue to babies that bedtime is impending. A lot of parents may complain that their spouse will never see the baby if bedtime is so early but if baby was previously sleeping in because of the late bedtime, then the other parent may get an opportunity to see baby in the morning once baby's wake-up time moves earlier and to a more 'natural' time. Unfortunately, babies very rarely fit into our schedules as their sleep needs are just so high, but there is not much for a baby that is more important than healthy sleep (well, food maybe!)