Bedtime Routines: Your Questions Answered

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As sleep consultants, we focus quite a bit on establishing bedtime routines with our client families. Parents seem to have lots of questions about bedtime routines: Why do we need one? When should we start a bedtime routine? What should we include in the routine? How long should it last? What makes a good bedtime routine? Read on…I’ll answer each of these questions right now.

Why do we need a bedtime routine?

Bedtime routines are great for many reasons. They help our children wind down before bedtime. They signal to our baby that it’s time to sleep. They even help our bodies begin producing sleep-inducing hormones. Children thrive on consistency and routine. The regularity of repeating the same steps in the same way at the same time each night is comforting for most babies and kids.

When is the right time to start a bedtime routine?

It’s never too soon to start developing good sleep habits. From our baby’s birth, we can begin using tools and techniques to promote healthy sleep, such as swaddling, having a dark room, sleeping without motion, using white noise, putting our baby down when she is drowsy but awake. When the baby reaches eight weeks is a great time to establish a more organized bedtime routine. It’s also never too late to start a routine, so even if your child is older, you can begin today.

What should we include in the routine?

Before I discuss what you should include, I’ll mention what should NOT be part of your routine. No screen time (TV, laptop, iPad, DVD, etc) with bright artificial light within one hour of bedtime. Learn more on TV and sleep here.

OK, now to what to include. Following are my suggestions but your routine doesn’t need to have all of this. Pick those elements that work best for your child and you, and then be consistent.

  • Start by ending active play and loud noise. Dim the lights or bring your child into the dimly lit bedroom. At our house, we keep the exciting, noisy, active toys in another room so that the bedroom is primarily for relaxing and sleeping.

  • For many, bedtime routine includes bath. My kids both had really sensitive skin as babies so I couldn’t bathe them every night. Plus my daughter just gets amped up in the tub (big fun!) so bath isn’t officially part of our routine. We just add it in earlier on nights when it’s needed.

  • Change into pajamas

  • Teeth flossing and brushing (for toddlers and up)

  • Reading stories (make sure to read to your kids at other times during the day so you can limit bedtime stories to one or two)

  • Singing songs

  • Turn on white noise (no music for sleeping) and/or nightlight

  • Milk feed (for newborn to toddler)

  • Diaper change (potty for the older kids)

  • Special good night words and down in crib or bed.

How long should our bedtime routine last?

This depends on your child and your family a bit. We want to give our kids enough time to calm down and transition, spend some quiet quality time with us (if possible), but get them to sleep at a biologically appropriate bedtime. With a long bedtime routine, we risk putting our kids to sleep too late. I believe 15-30 minutes is reasonable. Try working backwards from the ideal sleep time for your child and do what your schedule permits. It’s more important to have a simple routine that you and any other caregivers can follow consistently. Sometimes when I try to rush my kids to bed and skip a step or two, they demand that we complete the entire routine. I’ve also tried leaving out steps for babysitters, but my kids will inevitably correct them!

What makes a good bedtime routine?

Consistency is most important for a good bedtime routine. When our kids are babies, we do a version of this routine before naps, too. So we need a routine that we can repeat every time the same way. Write down the bedtime routine so everyone knows the steps. A good bedtime routine is one that works for our kids, signaling to them that its time for bed and preparing their bodies and minds for sleep. It should be soothing, comforting, calming. And when we get it just right, it can be the best part of our day!

21 Responses to “Bedtime Routines: Your Questions Answered”

  1. Gail Simmons

    We have a 7 month old, and we have been doing a bedtime routine with him since he was a few weeks old. At 7 he gets a bottle to make sure he fills up, then Bathtime, then storytime and snuggles. Now we have added in brushing his teeth, but otherwise we have been consistent for months. We take him in sleepy, lay him in bed (in our room, he sleeps in a playpen at the foot of our bed), and as soon as we leave the room he cries. We have tried staying in the room with him and just turning off the lights, and he still cries. I am not sure what to do, it takes about 20 minutes every night after we put him to bed to get him to sleep, and this has been consistent for months. Bedtime routine, same process, same words…same crying.
    Any advice or tips would be very much appreciated.

  2. Please help. We had a difficult start with silent reflux and very delayed diagnosis and treatment so developed bad habits due to constant screaming. My daughter is now 8 months. Her bedtime routine each night is- dinner 6pm ,change (in dimmed quiet room from here), bath 6:30, change, breastfeed 6:50, bed 7:30pm. She tends to wake 1-2 for a quick feed during the night. Goes down awake during the night but requires to be fed to sleep at bedtime. She screams if not. Whenever/wherever I breastfeed her at nighttime- regardless of where it is she falls asleep. Need to try switching our routine but don’t know where to start. She is a very active baby. Has never really slept much during the day- sleeps 20 mins on average in the morning and 40mins in pram on a walk in afternoon. It’s hard to follow sleep cues as she is so active and is only ever drowsy when I feed her. Please help! Rachel

  3. Veronica

    My 6wk old usually wakes up around 7am or 8am and then has a fitful nap from 9-10am. Most of the time he is only half asleep or he wakes up a lot as he seems to be struggling to either release has or poop. I cuddle with him in the bedroom and keep it dark and wuiet (with white noise) to try to provide some calm for him. Between 10am and as late as 1pm, he simply won’t nap whatsoever. I’ve tried doing a shortened version of our bedtime routine but that doesn’t do anything for him. This is generally his “meltdown period” in which he will fuss, cry, and often wail. I’m usually able to finally get him to nap in his rock-n-play by mid-afternoon. He will often then nap for 2-3hrs, wake for a feed, then sleep for another 2-3hrs. His bedtime is usually between 9-10pm and sometimes he does make it a but tough to put him down but for the most part he goes to bed just fine and sleeps well at night. My concern is with his daytime napping. I hate that he is awake for such a long period before finally napping and I am not sure the long naps at mid-afternoon/early evening are good for him. What do you think?

  4. My name Is Aissa and I have a 4 year old and a one and a half year old. My daughter is pretty good with bedtime but I am having troubles with me son. He has Co slept in bed with me ever since he was born and when I do try to put him into his bed after the bed time routine he cries a day cries and either poops or starts puking because he gets to worked up. I am looking for some advice please so that we can both get a better sleep thankyou

  5. Kristin

    My sweet sweet daughter is 4 months old (today) and has shown me ever since birth she wants an early bedtime 6-6:45pm. But the last few weeks or maybe more she will wake up 30-60 minutes after ‘bedtime’ and want to play. We do bath, jammies, swaddle, nurse to sleep. Every night when she wakes up at this time I try and gently help her back to sleep (sometimes just some gentle words, replace binky, or nurse depending on how much she ate at actual bedtime) and sometimes this works and she goes back to sleep. But other times she will not fall back asleep and is so dang cute and starts talking, smiling, playing with me. I give in on these days because to me it seems like she isn’t ready for sleep again. This wakeful period usually lasts a very happy 60-80 minutes which is a normal awake time for her. but at this point I am unsure how to proceed. When I do try and “force” her to go back to sleep we end up crying and frustrated for 60-80 minutes (I do not leave her. Unless I need a minute to collect myself from being frustrated) Any advice where to go from here? I realize she is very young but am I getting her bedtime wrong? Should she be taking a late nap at 5:30pm or something and extending her bedtime to get her that last burst of play time? I am just at a loss and cant find much on this problem. I should also say she doesn’t nap very well during that day only 40 minutes at a time. Sometimes I can get her back to sleep and she will sleep another 40 minutes. She usually sleeps at least 3-5 hours before waking to eat at night. And for naps she is laid down drowsy and not asleep (most of the time). help! please! anyone! :)

  6. Hi Sleep Sisters, thank you for answering my question that I posted about my 3.5 months old son. He is now 4.5 months and went from great napper to crappy napper. I don’t know if he’s in the transition but this happened as soon as he turned 4 months. I’m trying to read his cues (rubbing eyes, yawning) but still feel miserably. He seemed to resist naps more and the longest nap he will take is 45 minutes (if I’m lucky), most of the time it’s 30 minutes and about 3-4 naps a day. For example he is up at 7 am this morning and usually would have been tired by around 8:30 am and so I nursed him and put him to his crib at 8:15 am and now almost 10:00 am and he is still fussing (no crying, just whining) and resisting this morning nap :(

    I’ve moved his bed time earlier to between 6-7 pm and he usually wakes up at around 6-7 am and woke up to nurse once or sometimes twice. He is sleeping in his crib for both naps and night time.

    Do you think it is time to put him on a nap schedule 9,12,3 ? or I should still follow his cues (which I seem to fail miserably) or is he still too young and I just to bear with this until he is 6 months ? Thank you so much!

    • and I forgot to add that he has rolled over from back to tummy but didn’t know how to do the opposite yet. So he often got stuck and cried and woke himself up. We do tummy time and kinda showed him how to roll back and forth, but that probably gonna take some time too. In a meantime… not sure what to do to make his nap better.

  7. Stephanie

    My 27mo daughter still wakes very frequently at night. Often every hour. She sleeps with us after her first waking and I breastfeed her back to sleep. I stopped feeding her to sleep at the start of the night and we have a good bedtime routine. It takes an hour from start to asleep but with no breastfeeding I think that’s good. Sometimes she wakes after only 1 hour, but increasingly she is sleeping 2-3 hours before starting her waking. I have tried all sorts of bedtimes and have also tried nightweaning using gradual retreat. I did this for 3 months and still she woke after sleeping for only 1 hour or less all night long, but was then awake at least 30 minutes at each waking. I have no idea how to get her to sleep better! She wakes screaming and crying if she’s not in our bed. If she is in our bed she wakes constantly but doesn’t cry. She wants to be asleep but often can’t get back to sleep for an hour. She is currently going to sleep around 8:30 and sleeping til 7:30 (off and on), or yesterday she skipped her nap so went to sleep at 7:30 and we stayed in bed til 8am. She is in nursery and naps normally about an hour and 15mins there until just after 2pm. If she went to sleep at 6:30 I just don’t see her sleeping. She struggles to get to sleep before being awake for at least 6 and normally 7 hours. Do you think she could be OT even with a bedtime of 8:30?? The only times she’s slept better were when she stayed up til 11pm and then slept 4.5hours!

  8. My sin is 3 1/2 months now and exclusively breastfed. He wakes up between 7 to 8 am and canstay awake for one and half hours max before having to take naps. He’ll take two 30 minutes naps, one long nap from 12 to 4 pm (but will wake up to feed twice in between this time) and his last nap is around 5:30 to 6. Bed time is around 8 to 8:30. He’s been a good sleeper and been sleeping a 6 hour stretch before waking up to feed. Lately he’s more fussy and wake up every 3 to 4 hours to feed. Can it be that he naps too much during the day ? Or he’s in the transition of changing his naps schedule ? What can I do to help ? Thank you so much.

    • Sleep Sisters

      Hi, Marve. It sounds like your son is getting in some good rest during both daytime and night. Remember that 3.5 months is still early in your child’s development. Neurologically, your son is not really ready to organize and lengthen sleep. Continue to focus on short periods of wakefulness (1.5 hours MAX) and get him as much rest as possible. Sudden periods of fussiness and hunger in a baby are common and typically indicate a growth spurt. If you’d like help getting him on a schedule after a few more weeks, feel free to contact us!

  9. Kendra Listro

    Hello! I have a 10 week old who will only be rocked to sleep! I can sense when she is tired, but if I lay her down after 20 minutes or so she works herself up to a full cry and I know she is still to young to CIO. Even if I start rocking her when I sense she is tired, it takes so long that she gets fussy before she falls asleep and is well past the 1 hour wakeful period since her last nap. The only self soothing tool she has is to suck her hand but she does not use it! I also use white noise which has helped duration of naps and bedtime. In the last two nights she has slept 5 hours straight! I know she is still very young for sleep training but I also don’t want bad habits! Do you have any advice? Also, she sleeps best in her MamaRoo (unplugged); I think it’s because of how snuggled she feels in it. I’ve tried elevating her crib and putting rolled blankets on either side of her to mimic the same effect, but still her eyes pop open (and she won’t go back to sleep) as soon as I lay her down – any suggestions?
    Thank you!! :)

    • Sleep Sisters

      Hi, Kendra. As a mom to a new baby myself, I know how frustrating this can be! Please remember that at this age, we can’t really expect too much of our babies – their brains are not neurologically mature enough to sleep for many long stretches! Keep focusing on healthy habits – like putting her down for naps drowsy but awake, having her nap mostly in her crib in a dark room with white noise. Most importantly, we recommend not keeping her up for longer than an hour to an hour and a half. We also really recommend that there be NOTHING in the crib with her (like rolled blankets) as an important safety measure. We’d highly recommend that you swaddle her instead! Hang in there. At four months, we’d be happy to consult with you about an appropriate sleep plan! Best of Luck! -Debbie

  10. Melanie

    Hi,

    I have been looking at this site and have been using many of the suggestions but my son still has trouble sleeping. My son slept through the night (8:30pm-7:00am) from 6 weeks until about 4 months old. Then he started waking multiple times at night. He still roots to feed, he’s now 11 months old. Sometimes he is up every hour on the hour. I think I have a good routine (dinner, bath, teeth brushing, story time, bed), but he still wakes multiple times a night. HIs normal bedtime is between 6-8pm and he naps usually for two hours between 11am and 2pm. I am returning to work when he turns a year and I was wondering if there is anything more I can do to help him sleep more soundly.

    • Melissa Zdrodowski

      Sorry to hear you are struggling. We can’t offer specific suggestions since we don’t know you (although, if you’d like a consult, please review our packages and submit an intake form). Generally, we suggest two naps a day for children 9-18 months, so perhaps your son isn’t getting enough daytime sleep, and therefore is overtired by bedtime. Once kids are overtired, their sleep quality is diminished. If you adjust your schedule to get a morning nap and an afternoon nap, you may find night wakes decrease. But there are a lot of other factors that may be contributing. Good luck!

  11. Hello,
    I have had custody of my 4 yr old granddaughter since March 2013. She now has a bedtime but still has issues with self-settling and has never gone to sleep on her own. She is a trauma survivor and experienced most of her abuse (in all forms) at night. Any suggestions for helping a child who has experienced trauma at night go to bed on her own? I am so tired as some nights take longer than others to settle… she has nap time at daycare (sometimes naps, sometimes not)… and I am older, still work full-time and often end up sleeping uncomfortably in her bed as I fall asleep with her… Help!

    • Sleep Sisters

      Kids with trauma history and/or anxiety benefit from an extended bedtime routine that includes quieting the house at least an hour before bedtime. Transitional objects are also very helpful. She is most likely also very overtired so an earlier bedtime might be a good idea. Best of luck! – Debbie

  12. marisa

    I have been searching high and low for a solution to keep my 2 year old to sleep later than 5-5:30 am. We have had the same routine for the past several months and nothing seems to change. We start our bed routine at 7:15 and he is usually asleep by 8-8:15 but awakes at 5. I have tried clocks, toys, etc but he still cries for us and will not go back to sleep. I can tell he is tired and gets tired mid morning and sometimes falls asleep in he car or on a walk but we keep his routine and put him down for a nap at the same time every day which is 1:30. He will sleep anywhere from 1-2 hours. Worried he is not getting enough sleep and neither our we given the early wake up.

    • Melissa Zdrodowski

      It sounds like you are off to a good start. Consistency is the key to good sleep, and it’s especially important for toddlers, who like to test boundaries and push limits. Without knowing more about your son, his medical history, diet, activity level, etc., I can only give you very general advice. Typically, early morning waking is due to a bedtime that is too late! Consider starting your bedtime routine closer to 6:15/6:30 to target a 7/7:30 pm bedtime. You don’t have to make the jump in one day. Back up bedtime about 15 mins each day until you reach the target time. You may find you want to shift nap earlier, too, at least for a while if he continues to wake early. Try 12:30. Be sure to give the new nap time and bedtime a change to work…it can take two weeks for a body to adapt to a new schedule. Let us know how it goes!

  13. I have been searching the internet for a post like this. I have tried early bedtime and later bedtime and it still takes my son 1 hour to fall asleep. If anyone has advice let me know. My 24month old takes great naps 2.5-3 hours everyday. His naps used to start at 1230PM when he woke at 630AM, but for the past 2 weeks he has been waking 550AM every morning so his naps have been starting at 12PM. We have tried 630-730PM for bedtime, and he always falls asleep right around 8PM. Do you think he needs to be going to bed at 8PM since he takes such a great nap during the day? I used to fallow the 4 hour rule when he was younger, but now that he is 2 years old I am wondering if he can stay up longer then 4 hours after a long nap. He has been sleeping 10 hours at night 8PM-6AM for the past 2 weeks and he used to sleep 11. Not sure what the right bedtime should be.

    • Melissa Zdrodowski

      Finding the right bedtime at any stage can be challenging and takes a little trial and error. You can always try an earlier bedtime for several days and see if it makes a difference. However, it sounds to me like the early waking may be behavioral – a habit. I have had a lot of luck (as have many of our clients and friends) using the Stoplight “Sleep Enhancing” Clock. See my blog post about how to use it to move wake times. Let us know how it goes. It takes a week or so, but you will see results.

21 Responses to “Bedtime Routines: Your Questions Answered”

Leave a Reply