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)
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!