As we’ve learned to let go of the strictures that once dominated our parenting style, one rule that has completely been relaxed is that of set bed-times. Most evenings, the girls go to bed whenever they wish — without coercion and without negative ramifications on the following day’s attitudes and energy levels.

Although we transitioned to free bed-times while we were sleeping together in our horse truck in New Zealand, now that we’re temporarily in our base home, we’ve discovered that we like offering free bed-times to the girls as they’re working really well for our family.

In the evenings

Instead of following an evening routine, David and I play with the girls and tidy up. We encourage the children to get ready for bed by asking if they’re properly dressed, would like a bath first or need a nappy on. Sometimes we read books, and 20-month-old Delaney is put to bed when she displays the classic tired-signs.

When David and I feel like we’re ready for the transition to bed-time (usually after Delaney is in bed), we simply turn off most of the lights, put the music volume on low and intentionally disassociate somewhat from our children (by going on the computer, reading a book, sitting together on the couch or entering into our own evening tasks). The girls are aware that we’re doing this and are in agreement with us, and they also move into their own private bed-time routines (by collecting the toys they want and arranging their bed spaces). They’re very gracious in giving David and me our space and time alone — they already understand that we benefit from time alone as a couple.

Sometimes we’re at our daughters’ sides when they go to bed — tucking them in and kissing them good-night. Other times, we turn around and realise that someone is missing — they’ve put themselves to bed!

Generally, the girls go to bed from around 8pm to 10pm. They’re (mostly) quiet and thoughtful of their sleeping sisters, so the ones awake don’t disrupt those already sleeping. The actual bed-times are within the time-frames that David and I stay up until, so it’s no inconvenience to us. Occasionally we may go to bed earlier, leaving one or two still awake and reading or playing quietly.

Brioni tying shoelaces, September 2011
At 9pm tonight, Brioni is sitting at the desk, practising tying up shoelaces. I was simply threading new laces into the shoes, when Brioni asked if she could help. She ended up lacing the shoes and then I taught her how to do the bows!

Aisha in the tub, September 2011
At the same time, Aisha is indulging in an extended bath. We simply top her tub up periodically with water from an electric kettle. She's been soaking herself for almost an hour!

Calista, 3yo, sleeping, September 2011
Calista put herself to bed about 8.30 by climbing into the sleeping bag and promptly falling asleep. I had prepared her for bed by helping her with her nappy, and she chose to go to bed when she felt tired.

Our girls drawing late at night, September 2011
At 10pm on another night, our three older girls were still wide-awake, intent on drawing. They'd played with the dress-ups for several hours and naturally moved into a quieter form of play as it got later.

Half an hour after this photo was taken, all three were in bed, asleep. They had decided (one at a time) that they were tired, and they put themselves to bed. Although they were up so late, the next day passed without incident. Calista took a two-hour nap from about 1pm, waking happy and cheerful. All the girls were in bed the next night by about 7.30, but that was a natural consequence of being tired!

In the mornings

20-month-old Delaney is the first to wake up between 6 and 7am. She loves a snuggle and can sometimes be persuaded back to sleep with a loving cuddle. The older girls wake up at completely different times.

We try to keep the noise level down if someone is still sleeping. Simply by being quiet ourselves, the girls mimic the respect that we’re showing others and are considerate of their sleeping siblings.

Some mornings, we’re not all awake until 9am. Other days, it’s earlier. Our lifestyle means we don’t need a morning routine — especially not one dominated by the clock — so these staggered awakenings suit our family and give us a unique start to each day.

Our girls are aware of their own energy levels. They’ve experienced times when they’ve lost control because they’ve been extra-tired, and then life is no fun for them. We share our own body-clock experiences to the girls and describe how we manage ourselves. During the day, each child considers their own energy levels and learns their own limits.

If they need to, the girls put themselves to nap. Sometimes we suggest good hiding spots if we think one daughter needs some time to rejuvenate herself. If we notice a child is tired, we can make them aware of their own tired-signs by inviting them to analyse their feelings and take action accordingly.

We’re loving our children’s free bed-times. Because we’re no longer trying to force our daughters away from us, we’re no longer exasperated by their continued presence in the evenings.

Free bed-times are peaceful and natural. It almost sounds too good to be true, but really, we’re encouraging our children to read the signs of their own body’s natural sleeping rhythm. It works for us.