Many parents ask what is the best bedtime for their child? The answer is: it depends. Let’s start with infants and toddlers. The natural bedtime for them is between 6 and 8PM. If they miss their natural bedtime, they can become overtired. An overtired child of any age does not always look sleepy – they can also be hyperactive, impulsive, and inattentive. You know that time when they bounce off the walls right before bed? Yes, that is how children often act when they are tired. An overtired infant or child is much harder to get to sleep than a well-rested one. They also sleep shorter amounts of time and less soundly. For example, many parents believe that if they keep their infant/child up later at night, he/she will sleep in later in the morning. This is a common misconception and it is actually counter-intuitive. The earlier a child goes to bed (within reason of course), the later they will sleep. This is because the child is well-rested and not overtired. Many parents are scared to put their child down for bed at 6:30PM in fear the child will then wake up at 4AM. In the families I have worked with, this has never been the case. The child typically sleeps until 6-6:30AM for a full nights sleep. Same goes for infants/toddlers that miss their naps in hopes for a better nights sleep. It does not work this way – the more time they spend napping means more well-rested little ones and a better and longer night’s sleep. Overtired infants or children are also much more difficult to get to fall asleep as they are cranky and disregulated as they have missed their natural bedtime.
Many parents also do not put little ones down for bed between 6 and 8PM as this is typically the only time a working parent or parents get to spend with the little ones. They therefore keep the child up in order to spend time with him/her. It is obviously up to the family as to what works best for them and if the child is sleeping well, then there is no problem.
As far as older children (I generally think school age and up), bedtime is best determined by starting with what time they need to wake up in the morning for school and how many hours of sleep they need to be getting. Count backwards from the time they need to be up as far as how many hours of sleep they need and I would set bedtime about 30 minutes before this. That gives some time for the child to fall asleep and ensure he/she is getting a full nights rest. For example, if the child needs to be awake (or naturally wakes up at 7AM) and needs 10 hours of sleep per night, I would aim for a bedtime of 8:30PM.