When your kiddo is throwing her fourth tantrum of the day and you just can’t sing “The Wheels on the Bus” one more time, it’s usually calming to calculate exactly how many hours you have left until her bedtime. A toddler or preschooler needs plenty of deep sleep to prepare for the next day of playing, hug-giving, song-singing, and good old toddler antics, so choosing the right bedtime is important. And no, putting her to bed at 4 p.m. is not the solution.
If you could peek through the windows of homes around the world, you’d see that you’re not the only mom telling little ones that vegetables have magic powers and that the new brand of cookies tastes like dirt. You’d also see that toddlers and preschoolers have a broad range of bedtimes. The average kiddo in this age group probably hits the sack somewhere between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. — but what’s right for one kiddo isn’t always right for another. Age doesn’t make much of a difference in determining bedtimes for kiddos within this group. In fact, a 2-year-old might have a later bedtime than a 5-year-old because he might take a longer afternoon nap.
Your kiddo’s current bedtime is probably appropriate if he’s fairly easy to rouse in the morning and falls asleep within 20 or 30 minutes after you tuck him in. If you’re concerned that he’s getting too little or too much sleep, consider the average sleep needs of a child this age: according to the National Sleep Foundation, a child between ages 1 and 3 years old needs a total of 12 to 14 hours of sleep per day, which usually includes one nap of one to three hours in length. A 3- to 5-year-old needs about 11 to 13 hours of sleep, which may or may not include an afternoon snooze. Your pediatrician can also help you pinpoint the amount of sleep your munchkin needs.
Calculating the right time for your little one to crawl into bed requires some math so simple that you can use your fingers — no traumatic calculus flashbacks here. Subtract your child’s average nap length from the total sleep need for a kiddo his age to determine how long he should sleep at night. You’ll want to determine with how much sleep your child functions best, since the National Sleep Foundation offers a range, rather than a precise number of hours of sleep a child needs. Work backwards from when you want him to wake up in the morning to find his bedtime. If you have a flexible morning schedule and would rather he sleep until 7:30 or 8 a.m., a bedtime of 9 p.m. might be appropriate — which is why it’s not helpful to compare your kiddo too closely to other kids. Little Jimmy down the block might hit the sack promptly at 6:45 each night, but he might also have to wake early if he has to go to daycare early.
Making Bedtime a Success
By the time bedtime rolls around, you likely have exactly enough energy left to tuck your child in, send one “I’m going insane” text to a pal and wash just enough laundry to get through the next day. A drawn-out battle with a kiddo who doesn’t want to sleep is often unbearable. A predictable pre-bedtime routine of a bath, snack, three or four stories and a minute or two of lullabies will eventually help your child feel comforted by bedtime instead of resistant to it. Little ones might panic at bedtime because of fears and separation anxiety, both of which are normal. Ease your little guy’s mind by helping him choose a stuffed animal or blanket that he can hug as he falls asleep — and set up a new nightlight. MayoClinic.com also suggests checking on an anxious child every 10 minutes, praising him for staying in bed and being quiet each time. Having you nearby is reassuring — and still gives you enough time to work that stain-removing magic between visits.