What Every Parent Needs to Know About Kids and Sleep


It still sticks in my brain:  the girls teasing me about the time I went to bed.  Why?  Because I wasn’t smart enough to not answer when they asked, even though they weren’t my friends and kinda mean.  So of course my 8 o’clock bedtime became fodder for calling me a “baby.”

Even though I slept like one, this “baby” would have much preferred to stay up later.  What kid doesn’t?   But my parents were unwavering on when I went to bed, which was good:  I went out fast and rarely awakened during the night.  So I must have needed the extra two hours that the “cool” kids  were missing out on with their stated 10:00 bedtimes.  Maybe that was just me.  And now my kids as well.  If they aren’t out by 8:30, God help us all the next day.

We think of sleep as natural and routine.  We often don’t give it a second thought and set bedtimes for our kids based on daily schedules, when the grind finally winds down.  We may not consider how much they truly need to function during waking hours.   As summer break, with its longer days and warmer evenings, vacations and day camp, comes to an end, we parents push bedtimes forward to the “school night” schedule but challenges do arise.  With a seemingly small window of time between school and “lights out!” homework and sports and other extracurricular activities wreak havoc with our best bedtime intentions.

But how important is an adequate night’s sleep?  Very, if kids are to be ready to learn for a full seven hours, five days a week.  Lack of a good night’s rest can lead to increased distractibility, impulsivity and poor concentration.   Not exactly the best frame of mind in which to learn.  That said, what exactly is the definition of a good night’s sleep?  The answer varies, depending on your child’s age.  And the answer may also surprise you. Here’s what you need to know:

Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5):   Formal schooling starts at this age, sometimes with all-day preK.  Sources vary, but generally preschoolers need 11-13 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.  Most children give up napping by age five, which coincides well with the beginning of Kindergarten.  However, don’t hesitate to push bedtime up if your happy-go-lucky child seems out-of-sorts by 6:30 pm on a school night.**

Young kids (ages 5-12):   Sleep problems are common in the age group.  And no wonder:  there is homework, organized sports, video games…and also sleepovers with scary movies, awesome amounts of junk food and very late bedtimes.  (Some sources recommend no overnights for these reasons but it seems extreme to deprive our kids of this quintessential childhood activity.)  However, elementary schoolers need 9 – 11 hours of sleep a night.  So consider your school morning routine.  What time does your child need to be out of bed to get to school on time?  Then work backwards to determine what bedtime should be to get in those necessary z’s.  An 8 pm bedtime is probably what you need to aim for.

Teenagers:  This is a tough group.  A loaded statement for sure, but the sleep needs of teens has been a subject for debate.  It’s easy to say the-older-we-get-the-less-sleep-we-need, and generally that is true.  But teens are still adolescent, their bodies still changing.  Toss in school, jobs, and social and extracurricular activities and your “hot mess” of a teen can actually have a “hot mess” of a sleep problem.  Kids in this age group need 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night but, because they are emerging into adulthood, it’s common for them to have difficulty falling asleep before the grown-up bedtime hour of 11 pm.  Which is why it’s hard to drag teens out of bed for school; their growth and development keeps them burning the midnight oil.  So these kids are tired. (This sleep pattern has numerous advocates calling for later school-start times for teens.)  And the effects go beyond the inability to learn:  depression, explosive anger, falling asleep at the wheel, and flare-ups of acne.  In short, teenagers need lots of sleep.  More than we think and certainly more than they get.

[**Don’t let your child go to The Dark Side.  You know, that place after “a second wind” when things get ugly.  If your tired child suddenly perks up in the evening, don’t be fooled.  She is so exhausted a surge of natural adrenaline is the only thing that keeps her going.  Until she can’t anymore.  Because adrenaline is a stimulant, a child who needs to sleep can’t, at least not until way past her bedtime.   A vicious, sleep-deprived cycle ensues which makes learning, and the behavior needed in the classroom to do so, nearly impossible.  So be proactive:  if 7:00 pm is when your child suddenly decides it’s time to jump on the furniture…make 6:30 bedtime.]

Sleep Hygeine:  the onus is on us.

Kids are observant.  We parents need to model good bedtime prep as much as we need to model any other good habit.  If they see us engaging in good sleep habits, chances are they will be open to the same.  Here’s some tips (for adults and kids alike!):

~Get back in the groove.  Too late, I realize, for this school year but three weeks before kids return to class, get back to the school night bedtime hour.  Even better, although there will be plenty of exceptions, keep summer bedtimes as close to that during the school year.  Kids want to make the most of their summers.  Give them the restorative z’s they need to make that happen.

~And stay in the groove.  Consistency is key.  Stick to bedtime with a firm hand.  Which is challenging:  I know I’m a sucker for giving in to requests for water and back rubs and stories “from when I was a kid.”  But setting rules puts the kibosh on stall tactics.  Decide what you’ll do and won’t do.  Maybe it is answering one, just one, question about your first pet.  Maybe it’s fetching that one cup of water.  Set ground rules for requests.  Bedtime consistency goes out the window if we don’t stick to it.  Because before we know it, it’s 8:30 or 9:00.

~Diet.  Did you know that some brands of orange soda contain caffeine?  I didn’t.  But no matter…my kids were up until almost 11:00 that night anyway (not my best parenting example).  But watch the caffeine…as in none after midday.  Not that too many kids are slurping cups of joe or cans of Pepsi in the school cafeteria anyway but still a good rule of thumb.

~Set the mood.  Keep your child’s bedroom cool and dark.  A nightlight is perfectly ok,  though.  Televisions, computers, handheld electronics, etc., should have a home outside the bedroom.  And should be turned off at least an hour before bedtime.

~Define the space.  Kids’ beds should be for sleeping only.  Not for reading or playing.  This is a tough one.  I know I’d rather just roll over and turn off the bedside lamp when I’m falling asleep in my book.  And reading is a great settle-down activity and seems a logical thing to do propped up with an extra pillow, under a comfy bedspread.  But if kids associate their bed with something other than sleep, sleep will come with difficulty.  Consider a separate place in your living room or play area to create a relaxing reading environment.

~Trim the Schedule.  Reconsider after-school activities.  I don’t like this idea anymore than anyone else.  But if a weekday activity gets your kids to bed late and they can’t function the next day at school…the activity needs to go.  Or if the benefits are worth fighting for, advocate for an earlier time or a different day altogether.  It’s not worth having tired, unhappy kids the next day.  I ask myself over and over:

Is it worth sacrificing an entire day for an hour or two the previous evening?

Sometimes it’s the tough decisions that are worth making.  If it were only easy to make them.

~Remember you need to recharge, too.  Years ago, I heard a pediatrician in our community give a talk on her area of interest, pediatric sleep.  In her discussion of appropriate bedtimes for kids she made several points on the benefits to pediatric growth and development and another important, yet rarely considered (or admitted), point for parents themselves:

When kids are awake, parenting needs to be the priority.  But parents need time to discuss family matters, one-on-one.  So timely bedtimes for kids need to be in place for this reason as well.

An eloquent euphemism for “Darn it, we parents need to unwind, too!”?  Probably.  We’ve all thought it, after a busy day, as much as we love our kids.  But at least once a week my husband or I brings a list to the living room after the kids are in bed.  We talk the kids’ schedule for the week, upcoming holiday plans, you name it.  Parents need the chance to connect, communicate and ready themselves for the next busy day.  A couple hours to do so means we can be at our best to care for our kids when they wake.

And we don’t have to feel guilty about those “early” bedtimes.  We all need them.



  • Thanks for sharing your ideas on this, Heidi. For me, the hardest thing is the back-and-forth business between school days and weekends. We end up staying up until midnight often on either Friday or (worse) Saturday night, and then when Sunday evening bedtime comes around, it’s impossible! And evening events start very late here, which is another issue. (Seriously, my volleyball games “started” at 8:30, meaning that people would show up around 8:45 and by the time everyone was changed and had warmed up, the game itself would start around 9:15! We often got home between midnight and 1 a.m. on Friday nights, setting the wrong tone for the weekend.) Thankfully, elementary school starts at 9:00, and junior high starts at 8:00 on some days and 9:00 on others. And since they have little transportation time, that helps, too. But this is *not* an easy issue for me, for sure.

    • That does sound like a challenge, Aimee. It’s tough on you, too, as a mom and an adult who needs sleep at regular times, too. How do your kids do with later bedtimes and school start times?

      • They *think* they do OK with the later bedtimes, but they have a hard time getting up on the “early in the week” school days. At least they now have school on Wednesday mornings, because until last year, there was no school on Wednesdays, so they thought they should be able to stay up late on Tuesday evenings, too!

  • Great article Heidi. My oldest (almost 16) has always needed his sleep and will put himself to bed by 9. Makes no difference what else is going on. Some nights he has even been in bed before 8. However, sleeping in for him is 7:30 ?. Sharing your post.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article! And thank you for sharing your son’s sleep habits. You have given me hope that my younger son will sleep the same way, even as a teen!

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