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I Let My Kids Pick Their Own Bedtimes

Little girl sleeping in her bed. She's wearing a pink and mint pyjama, and the bed is covered by white sheets and an old fashioned, pinkish quilt.
Photograph by Getty Images

Sleep and bedtimes has to be one of the hottest parenting topics out there. It seems to stir up the need for parental control in our high-stress society, but not for us.

You see, my kids tend go to bed when they're tired, not when they're told.

I don't believe it's either natural or healthy to expect a baby or toddler to self-soothe and sleep through the night uninterrupted by themselves. I'd even go as far to suggest that the popularized variations on cry-it-out or sleep training are nothing short of emotional neglect which ignore the natural development of a baby through to a young child.

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As a parent, I try to remember what it felt like being a child and how society may have dictated my child-rearing experience rather than what it may have been like from an instinctual parenting perspective. Every child, no matter how they have been raised, loves to climb into their parent's bed just like other mammals who enjoy sleeping close to each other.

Parenting is exhausting, no one can deny that, but that doesn't mean we should be taking it out on the people we love so much by enforcing strict bedtimes that don't respect seasonal changes and each child's unique needs.

Basically it's about shifting from"me" to "we"—something that our society has great difficulty with.

For me, putting a child to bed before they're tired, sometimes in the daylight, and making them stare at the ceiling to fall asleep eventually through boredom is not compassionate, gentle parenting. Children are young only for such a short window and I feel it's not unrealistic to allow our own needs for rest to take a back seat to the children's higher energy levels while they learn to adjust their circadian rhythms. Parents can always neglect non-essential household chores temporarily while they catch up on rest during nap times or with the help of a babysitter every now and again.

As for time to ourselves as the parents, as mature adults we must learn to adapt our old lifestyle pre-children from an egocentric perspective to a a more collective perspective. Basically it's about shifting from"me" to "we"—something that our society has great difficulty with. Examples of this might include having movie nights in rather than going out to gain some together time without sacrificing the child's need for sleep security.

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We've always let our five-year-old stop when he drops—usually around 10 p.m. in the summer and around 9 p.m. in the winter—and as a consequence, he compensates by waking later on in the morning (around 9:30 a.m.) Our youngest is now nearly one-and-a-half and typically goes to sleep around 8 p.m. and wakes around 7a.m. Parents who haven't experienced children who don't burn the candle at both ends may not have seen this kind of sleep compensation occur if they haven't stuck it through a short trial of child-led bedtimes.

Of course, it can be difficult if you have school or work schedules to adhere to, but the children and the adults will learn to adapt their sleep schedule around the demands of their life if given some time to adjust.

If we always override our children's bodily signals, how can we expect them to grow up and be in tune with their own healthy needs? If we teach them that others' opinions and expectations are more important than their body's own signals, then perhaps we are setting them up for peer pressure and bullying later down the line—and that's something every parent wants to avoid.

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