Don’t Beat Yourself Up About Your Kids Going to Bed Late

As long as they're getting enough sleep, they're going to be just fine.

Image via iStock.

I’m going to come clean: our 4-year-old son doesn’t usually go to bed until some time between 9-10 PM on weeknights. Sometimes it’s even later on weekends.

According to plenty of experts, the parents of prior generations and some of our peers, little ones should be sawing logs by no later than 7 PM. So I guess this makes my wife and me bad parents. We’re not. Like many families, we have modern schedules.

Between picking up our son from school and getting home somewhere around 5:30, making dinner, doing the dishes, answering a few lingering work emails or finishing an assignment, a bath, getting into PJs, teeth brushing time, and reading a few bedtime books, 7 PM is not a realistic target. It’s not even close.

To complicate matters, I often go out for work dinners or my wife works late–almost always one of us stays home, unless we have one of our rare date nights–meaning our time with him and involvement in his nighttime routine are severely truncated.

Our son has noted our absences and adapted. Oftentimes, I’ll come home from dinner to find him still up, waiting for me. If it’s a reasonable hour, I’ll read him a book before lights out. If not, I’ll have a quick catch-up with him as I’m tucking him in.

At first, I was worried he wasn’t getting enough sleep, which is vital to for a child’s health and development. However, according to WebMD, children ages 3 to 6 years old should get between 10-12 hours of sleep a day. Not necessarily in a single, solid stretch either. On weeknights, our boy usually sleeps from 9:30 PM-7:30 AM–10 hours–which he usually complements with a nap of an hour or more in the late afternoon or early evening. This puts him right in the range where he needs to be. On weekends, he might go to sleep later, but he can sleep in much later–and still take a nap if he needs it. We will need to reconfigure his schedule in the fall, when he we will start getting up earlier, as he will be attending school for the full day for the first time, but we can still create flexibility for his sleep times.

Another concern I’ve had about my son’s sleep schedule is the fact that it doesn’t give my wife and I a buffer of alone time before we head to bed ourselves. It’s true, the calendar slots that feature just the two of us at home are few and far between. Other parents will tell me about putting their kids to bed early so they can watch a couple of expletive- and nudity-rich episodes of Game of Thrones or just cuddle on the couch, and I’ll feel a wistful twinge of jealousy. And though I’m usually fried at the end of day, since I usually get up between 5-5:30 AM, I sometimes wish I had extra time at night to put in another hour or two at the laptop.

But then I think about the valuable time we all get to have together as a family, which is limited during the week and can be scattershot on the weekends, as we hit the birthday party circuit, do play dates, head to the grocery store, and get stuff done around the house. It often feels like we don’t get enough time when it’s just the three of us. So I really treasure that time together, even if it’s doing the quotidian: making sure our boy is brushing all of his teeth, reading Dragons Love Tacos for the umpteenth time, or having a debate about whether he wants to wear his stormtrooper or his Spider-Man pajamas. Life is all about these little moments.

My last anxiety about my son’s late bedtime was how I was going to be judged by my fellow parents. At first, I would quickly change the subject or demur when the subject came up. After a while though, I found myself being honest and open about it, because I don’t ever want to lie about the realities of parenthood. So many parents have responded with a look of relief as they gush, “Oh, thank God, I thought we were the only ones.”

You’re not, and it’s okay.

Raising children is nerve-racking enough without unnecessarily stressing yourself out about when your kid is going to bed. There is no shame in the late night game. As long as your child is getting enough sleep and it works for your family, that’s all that matters.

Parenting writer

Nevin Martell is a parenting, food, and travel writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Saveur, Men’s Journal, Fortune, Travel + Leisure, Runner’s World, and many other publications. He is author of eight books, including It’s So Good: 100 Real Food Recipes for Kids, Red Truck Bakery Cookbook: Gold-Standard Recipes from America’s Favorite Rural Bakery, and the small-press smash Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip. When he isn’t working, he loves spending time with his wife and their six-year-old son, who already runs faster than he does.