Early Birds and Night Owls: Finding Ways to Create Rhythm for Divergent Needs

The following is by contributor Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute.

“Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.” – Yehudi Menuhin

Routines are wonderful for creating continuity and a predictable rhythm in your family life. But what happens when the internal rhythms of individual members of one family are drastically different? Perhaps nowhere is this difference in personal rhythm more striking than at bedtime.

One Room, Many Sleep Patterns

We have three boys sharing one room. While our oldest is often hammered from the day’s activities, our middle son remind us almost nightly that he is “noctownal” and doesn’t actually need sleep. (Sometimes we almost believe him.) Our youngest still naps, so depending on how that goes each day, he may be out as soon as his head hits the pillow or he may still be winding down for a while. I’m certainly not ready to spend three hours in a revolving door of three separate bedtimes, so we had to come up with a routine that would fit different rhythms.


First you have to remember that whenever you give a child expectations, they have to be clearly attainable for young children and somehow possible for you both to objectively monitor.

You can’t immediately enforce “go to sleep”. (Unless of course you’re a master of hypnotism.) What you can realistically expect is that children stay in bed (with the exception of necessary trips to the bathroom, of course) and use quiet voices so that those who are sleeping won’t be disturbed.

Likewise, the request that children “stay in bed until morning” is not a clearly attainable expectation either. A four year-old may wonder, “Does morning start when I wake up? Or is it morning as soon as I can see a sliver of light through the curtains?” Many children may need a clear and observable way to know when the “wee small hours” have turned into “morning”.

Faced with a room full of boys with different internal rhythms and two parents in need of some sleep, we decided to hone in on these two expectations and make them clearly attainable and observable for our boys. Here’s how we did it.

Reasonable Rhythms

First we tackled the expectation that the boys stay in their beds and use quiet voices, even if they don’t think they want to go to sleep yet. To help them meet this expectation, we introduced the bedtime baskets.

These are small baskets they keep in their beds with a selection of books and (for the older boys) some small, quiet toys like legos or small figures as well. This way, our boys have something to do while they wind down. They are able to stay in their beds and stay quiet, even if they aren’t quite ready to sleep. These bedtime baskets proved to be just the thing for our morning routine as well.

Photo by Derek Gavey

Just to keep things interesting, at our house, the night owl is also an early bird. For a while he had a habit of waking up some time between 5:00 and 5:30. Now that would have been enough of a challenge in itself, but I also happened to be pregnant with my third child at the time, and so the early morning wake-up call quickly became unbearable.

My husband and I realized that “stay in bed until morning” was too vague of an expectation for our young son to be able to attain or for any of us to objectively monitor. To make “morning” more concrete we used an outlet timer on the nightlight in our boys’ room.

The nightlight was set to turn off when “way too early in the morning” transitioned into “a decent time to get up”. In our home at that time, that was 7:00. When one of our little guys would wake up in the early morning hours, I would sometimes hear him playing quietly with the items in their bedtime baskets until it was time to get up or until they drifted back to sleep again. (You can read more about the bedtime basket and nightlight timer in this post.)

As Kara mentioned in last week’s post, finding the right routine for your family is often a moving target. As your family changes, your routines change as well. Whatever those changes may be, keep in mind that expectations within those routines have to be clearly attainable and allow for individual differences. Once you find a way to meet those two needs within the overarching rhythm of your family, that will indeed bring unanimity to the divergent, continuity to the disjointed, and compatibility to the incongruous.

How have you adapted your routines to allow for differences and individual needs?

About Amanda

Amanda Morgan is a full time mom to three busy boys and a part-time trainer and consultant for a non-profit children's organization. She also writes at Not Just Cute, a blog full of ideas that are more than just cute, for preschoolers who are much more than cute too.

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  1. I’ve got a 3.5 year old that is a night owl AND early bird too: staying up until almost 9pm and getting up around 5:30. You’ve offered some great tips for families that are going through this!! My son receives supplemental nutrition via feeding tube overnight, so when he wakes up at 5:30 now (though he always woke up that early, even pre-tube) he’s really got to go potty. I’ve often wondered if there was any way to take him to the potty (I have to unhook all his tubing) and then send him back to his room for an hour or so until a more “reasonable” wake up time. For now we just get up (and I actually get up even earlier so I can have a few minutes for my devotions), but I LONG for a better solution! Thanks for your tips!

  2. Jennifer Ott says:

    We are going to start implementing this today! I have a baby, a toddler who naps but gets up early, and a son who gets up even earlier! We were just given the “Good Night Light”, so I will plug that in, but the bed baskets are just the ticket, I think, to making this work. Our girls share a room, and our house is old and noisy, so they need something to do quietly! Thank you so much; this was just what I needed to hear today!

  3. Thanks for this post Amanda! The night ligth on a timer is a great idea~ I have a night owl who is 5 years older than my early bird and then a toddler who can swing either way. Sometimes she doesn’t nap and is ready for an early night (and hence an early morning) and sometimes she naps and is awake with our night owl for a while at bed. We used the bedtime basket type idea with our early bird as a toddler and preschooler. He now has his own room, so he shuts the door in the morning and plays and listens to audiobooks to his heart’s content 🙂 I will def be using the night light idea/bedtime baskets with my toddler once she’s in her own bed. Thanks for the great post!
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  4. My kids always had access to books as they were growing up, and had nightlights they could read by. Even the younger ones in the crib had board books!
    Not only did this keep them in bed longer, it encourage a love of reading that has continued to this day! Great tips!
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  5. Thanks for your comments! It’s great to hear how this might work in your own families.
    Amanda´s latest post: Early Birds and Night Owls Simple Kids Guest Post

  6. Christine says:

    this is brilliant! Thank you! My son is an early bird and he and my daughter just started sharing a room. It’s been a bit of a rough transition sometimes. I have to find one of those nightlights on a timer!

  7. I also have 3 boys who sleep in the same room. Everyone tells me I’m nuts but it has worked pretty well. These great tips will make it work better! Thanks and it is just so nice to hear from someone else who also has 3 sharing a room.

  8. When I was a kid, I was the oldest of three kids. My little brothers still napped and even though I didn’t need a sleep I still had to go to my room for “tuck-in time”. I had a shoe box full of activities, books, stencils & paper, etc.. that I could play with. I’m sure some days I fell asleep but not all the time. It gave my Mom ( who had 3 kids just over 4 years apart) some free time to relax and maybe clean up some chaos without ANY kids underfoot.

  9. Thanks for sharing! Those are incredibly well-designed ideas — I love the light switching off especially. I can foresee a time in the future when we will have at least 3 kids to a room, and I am relieved to know that you’ve already come up with some tools for success!

  10. Great article, Amanda. My youngest will eventually move into her sister’s room, and I’ve been dreading the transition. Our baby still wakes up at night, and I’m hesitant to break up my older daughter’s sleep. Any recommendations on what age we should put them in a room together?
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    • I put my boys in together once each one was sleeping through the night pretty consistently. So for our boys, that’s generally been around 1 year. At the baby and toddler phase they don’t really clue into the nightlight signal yet, but I’m surprised how well the others sleep through a little commotion in the middle of the night or early morning.
      It really depends on how deeply your older child sleeps and how predictable your younger child’s sleep is. When we thought we were ready, we would try it out on a weekend and approach it as a sleep-over and just see how things would go!
      Amanda Morgan´s latest post: Early Birds and Night Owls Simple Kids Guest Post

  11. Thank you! I have three girls in the same room (one 4-yo and 2-yo twins) and we are struggling because while the twins are great sleepers, the four year old is and always has been an incredible challenge, including an ability to stay up till all hours bouncing off the walls, and early rising (5-5:30) without fail. We have been letting her fall asleep in our bed so she doesn’t keep her sisters up, but this has led to her finding her way back to our bed multiple times per night – it’s like having a newborn again! I am going to try giving her a basket and let her try going to sleep on her own in her own bed. Great ideas.

    Thanks agin!

  12. What a valuable post! I have 3 boys. 2 share a room, one of whom is an early riser and the other, a night owl. We have been racking our brains how to manage this because we do want them to share (they love it). Your idea is great. We also thought of putting a digital clock in their room. Our 5yo is the early riser and he can read numbers so he would need to wait until the numbers said 6.30 before getting up. The bed baskets are just brilliant. Thank you. I also found your blog and can’t wait to have a look around!
    Francesca´s latest post: Oh yes- rhythm is a powerful thing

  13. we have used a digital clock for our now 4 1/2-year-old since he turned 3 — if he wakes up early, he’s allowed to play or read quietly, but he may not come out of his room until the clock says “seven-zero-zero.” this has worked very well, with the added side benefit that he has learned to understand time very well already.

  14. My girls share a room and bedtimes. I give the youngest books and animals for her crib and the older girl has a table with a lamp, books, and a toddler clock. At 7Am the clock color changes so she knows it is time to get up. Usually they play in the room until well past 7Am so it is working well. The baby still naps so she usually is up later than our toddler.

  15. Hi Amanda, thanks for your awesome post! I find it very interesting. My kid doesn’t act like that, however, we just bought him this great Toddler Beds For Boys (which he choose himself). So far, I think he like it, but I will definitely look out for some signs of being “noctownal”, and will definitely bear the lessons I’ve learned from your post today in mind. Thanks!
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  16. I love these ideas! I’ve already been using the bedtime basket idea with my 7 month old, but in a less structured way. I’m totally going to use these more formally when she gets older. Thanks for the post!
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