Some background, my wife and I largely follow best practices when it comes to our child's bedtime routine. We start at the same time, go through the same calming routine, and for the most part haven't had much issue throughout our three year old's life.

The problem we're having now is that at some point in the past year we decided to start letting him get tired and make the decision to go to sleep himself, rather than putting him in bed at a specific time. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with this, but lately as he moves towards three he seems to be trying harder to stay awake until the very last moment. This is becoming a problem as he sometimes doesn't fall asleep until 9:30, or even later, making our downtime very minimal.

On the plus side, we spend quite a bit of time with him before bed, reading, and playing with minimally stimulating toys. So there does seem to be an advantage to what we're doing - language and motor skills. But on the con side we'd really like to get out of there sooner.

More recently he went full time at daycare and has been having solid afternoon naps, so that's likely a factor as well.

My question is whether it'd be appropriate or possible to try to move him back to a more rigid routine of putting him in bed at a specific time, and how to do so. Right now it feels like we're removed enough from this that I'm not sure how we'd make the adjustment

3 Answers 3


It is absolutely appropriate (and possible) to move to a fixed bedtime. He won't be thrilled initially, but it's doable, and possibly the sooner you do so, the easier the adjustment will be. Bedtimes, like other things, need to work for the whole family.

I would start by deciding what the most appropriate bedtime should be, and tell him every night, "it's bedtime in (an hour/whatever.)" The child should be warned a bit before the bedtime routine starts so that they can finish up whatever they're doing, then start your routine. Give him as much "plus side" quality time as he's getting now, because he needs that, especially as he's giving up some of his independence and that's your part of the trade. So if he gets, say, an hour and a half of "plus side" time now, tell him it's soon bedtime (an hour and a half + added time to finish up) before that.

Make sure he has comfort objects he can cuddle and self-soothe with in bed before it's lights out. If he cries when you leave, use a "gradual extinction" method of helping him to get back into the habit of falling asleep on his own. It may be hard at first, and you will probably feel some guilt over wanting more free time while he's getting used to going to bed earlier, but as I said, I believe bedtimes need to work for the entire family with give-and-take on all sides.

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    Thanks for this. After thinking it through your solution is pretty much what we landed on, but there are some other helpful points here too.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 0:40
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    @CanadianCoder - On reflection, I made a mistake. The child should be warned a bit before the bedtime routine starts, so that they can finish up anything they're doing before the routine starts. I hope that makes sense, and sorry for the oversight. I am glad, though, that you now have a plan you're comfortable with. :) Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 13:34
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    To add another quick comment. We tried this approach, but I think it would have worked better if we had started him a number of months earlier. Now he seems to be at a point where he understands that bedtime is arbitrary, and he just won't stay down unless he's actually sleepy. Fair enough, though. We've been trying to gradually move it earlier, but I think eventually he's just going to need to lose his nap, which should get it done.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Apr 6, 2023 at 1:50

There is a middle ground to be had, and it works wonders for our extremely strong-willed daughter. She's 4 now, but we started this policy around 3 when she started fighting bedtime tooth and nail.

The rule is, your bum has to be on the bed at a certain time, but I'm not forcing you to lay down and sleep. she doesn't have to be lying down. I draw the line at standing, though. No standing.

Every night, she would go through the bedtime routine with us around 6:30/7ish (she wasn't napping by this point, since yours is, you may need to pick an hour later or so) and she had a night light that allowed you to see in her room and not be pitch black (it's basically just bright enough to read, but dim enough to sleep). She was allowed a soft toy to play with, and a favorite book (that's robust, just in case it gets thrown).

Then, if she wants to play with her 1 toy and read her book, fine. She talks to herself and sings and winds down on her own and reads her book happily, and crashed around 8, sometimes later. We have learned thay she needs this transition time.

Rule is you stay in bed unless you need to pee. We are around to enforce it, and otherwise to not engage. I used to set a timer and check on her every 30-45 min, especially while potty training nights, and otherwise not engage with her/play with her/pick up toys off the floor that had been thrown (if it's thrown on the floor, it lives there until morning). If she wants to engage in conversation, I establish if it was a critical need, and if not, remind her it is bedtime and she shouldbe winding down.

This worked (and works still) remarkably well for our daughter who wants to do things "her way" while still enforcing a consistent bedtime.

(Also, I was notorious for staying up reading late while a child, I can't bring myself to make her sleep when she wants to read)

  • "I draw the line at standing, though. No standing." And if that little rebel does stand, how do you "enforce" your rules? Do you just talk her into submission or do you use full-on beatings? Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 14:41
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    @DennisHackethal You're welcome to write your own answer if you think mine is ridiculous. Everyone parents differently, and every child is different. You obviously choose to parent differently. Children need more boundaries than adults because they don't have practice with moderation. Everyone is affected by a exhausted 5yo the next day. If she is consistently struggling to settle in the evening, I would consider putting her to bed later if she was still getting up in time for school. I have no problem changing the routine if need be, but I do think there should be one. (I'm the wife, btw).
    – stan
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 11:18
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    To summrise (my points have been all over the place). Standing/Jumping on the bed is a sign (imo) that the child isn't ready for bed and needs to work out their energy more. I will usually let them spend 5min getting that energy out. If it happens consistently, I reevaluate their bedtime.
    – stan
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 11:22
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    @DennisHackethal you're welcome to disagree with me that bedtime routines are necessary. I happen to think that structure is important for a child. I'm happy to agree to disagree.
    – stan
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 11:25
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    So you're assuming that because I don't let my daughter jump on her bed at bedtime, I don't listen to her opinion?
    – stan
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 11:48

Answering my own question after some experimentation. Ultimately I think how bedtime goes is going to depend a lot on the child's personality, and the approach of the parents. We're very much a 'grant as much freedom as possible within reasonable limits' family, and that seems to be why things unfolded as they did.

In this specific situation I've found that I can't force him to go to sleep when he's not tired, but I have started giving him a pre-emptive warning that we're going to try to go to sleep. Usually once he starts getting sleepy. Most of the time we'll try once, he'll want to read another book, we'll try again, he'll read another book. And then by the third time he's usually wound down and ready to make the decision himself.

In this way there's a give and take and smooth transition. I control when it starts, he has some control over when he finally goes down. At three years old, even though he's defiant, he seems to appreciate the structure and firmness. I just don't let the firmness cross the line into being an authoritarian.

Edit Aug. 8th: Popping in to provide another update. After a few more months bedtime has actually gotten much easier, rather than harder. I definitely wasn't expecting it to go this way, but it did.

My take is that the approach we took allowed him to build his own relationship with sleep, and made his bed a place of comfort rather than conflict. These days when he's tired we put him in bed and he passes out pretty much right away. Some nights he still goes to bed a little later than we'd like, but it usually corresponds to when he's actually tired, which I'd call normal.

Edit Oct 31st: A few months later bedtime started to become more difficult again, BUT we discovered that his daycare had started letting him nap almost all afternoon again (for a while we were having them wake him up). So the problem turned out not being so much behavioral, but rather how tired he actually was at bedtime.

Once we had the daycare start waking him up from his nap again, his bedtime normalized and became much easier.

The reason I'm tacking on this additional edit is because I think our fundamental approach of giving him control was ok, but parents should keep in mind that a kid has to actually be tired before they'll warm up to going to sleep. That's the central issue. If they're ready to fall asleep at 8 PM, then they'll fall asleep then. If they're ready to fall asleep at 9:30 PM, the only way to move the bedtime earlier is if they sleep less earlier in the day.

In theory it should boil down to brain chemistry, and what the patterns were earlier in the day, just like an adult would experience.

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    thanks for the useful update, sounds like the wording of "we'll try and get to sleep" really worked for your family, giving your child enough sense of control.
    – R Davies
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 13:10

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