The 3-year-old is sleeping. He has been asleep since about 3 p.m. It's now about 5 p.m. We tried to wake him up about an hour ago, but he sort of sat up, muttered, whimpered, and curled back up. Even the dog basically laying on top of him hasn’t woken him up. He is only wearing one shoe. We’ll probably let him go until dinnertime.
This means, of course, that he’ll be awake until all hours of the night, which is no problem. We’ll put his brothers to bed then hang out. At some point, we’ll put on the TV show Puffin Rock so he doesn’t pester us. Then, eventually, he’ll fall asleep, probably sometime around 11 p.m. It’s kind of a pain, because it means my husband and I don’t always get alone time at night, but I just can’t stand to wake a sleeping baby.
My son doesn't have a set bedtime. In fact, neither do my older son, who are 5 and almost 7. To some extent, they don't need one: They’re homeschooled, so they don't have to worry about waking up to catch a bus at 6:30 a.m., and they typically stumble out of bed in time to start school around 10 a.m. They stay up until they show signs of sleepiness: crabbiness, lethargy, downright misery. Then we bundle them up in their pajamas and put them to bed.
Sometimes, it's tricky figuring out exactly when to get them to bed: we can’t wait too long, or my almost seven-year-old throws epic exhaustion tantrums. But for the most part, the process happens pretty much organically.
I realize that by not giving our kids a set bedtime, we're in the minority of most parents. It also goes against a lot of the existing research out there about the benefits of giving your kids a consistent bedtime. In fact, according to a recent article from the British journal Paediatrics, which looked at sleep patterns and behavioral problems in children from 3 to 7 years old, a regular bedtime is correlated with better behavior during the day, so the more consistent the bedtime, the more consistent the good behavior.
I've found, however, that that's not the case for my kids. The fact that they don't go to sleep at the same time every night doesn’t mean they don't get enough rest, or that their behavior suffers. My children’s behavior is largely dependent on how much one-on-one time they’ve had with adults, how much attention we’ve paid them throughout the day, and how much exercise they’ve had.
I don’t see a reason to force some arbitrary bedtime on them, which would just provoke more bad behavior.
If they've spent the whole day indoors, for instance, they likely didn't burn off enough energy, so they want to stay up later than usual, which leaves them bouncing off the walls like those rubber balls you get in supermarket prize machines. If they’ve spent the day playing outside at the frog pond or riding their bikes, they’ll usually fall asleep in the car ride home and go to bed early.
I don’t see a reason to force some arbitrary bedtime on them, which would just provoke more bad behavior. If they have excess energy during the day, I'd prefer they burn it off by spending some time in their small indoor play place, playing with their Matchbox cars or building forts with their stuffed animals.
Our method differs from that of our friends, who tend to give their kids strict bedtimes. We know one couple who makes her almost-7-year-old go to bed at 7:30 p.m., which is the same bedtime for their almost-3-year-old. As a result, they always have to make excuses to leave events early. "It's bedtime," they say. "We gotta go."
We allow our kids to listen to their bodies.
Because their sons have to get up to go to school, I understand why they set a regular bedtime for their kids. And since they're already conditioned to go to bed early, they act up when they stay up late. If you’ve conditioned your kids to go to bed at the same time every night, that'll likely factor into their behavior. But it's important to note that that's not the case for every child.
I don’t feel guilty or disorganized because my kids don’t have a set bedtime. After all, I don’t go to bed at the same time every night. Sometimes I crash out at 7 p.m.; other nights I’m up till 1 a.m. We allow our kids to listen to their bodies in the same way, and I don’t think it promotes negative behavior or naughtiness.
This holiday season, we'll be going out with our sons to various parties and events, and we'll likely be staying out late. I can almost guarantee that my kids will be the same polite, sweet children they always are. And if they aren’t, it’s a sign they’re tired and need to go home. As parents, we read our children's behavioral cues and respond accordingly. That’s what good parenting is all about, not setting arbitrary bedtimes.