A question I hear all the time from new parents revolves around bedtime routines. How do we create one? What goes into a bedtime routine? Why should we do a bedtime routine? When do you do the bedtime routine? Here are some answers to all of these very important questions.
Even as adults we have a bedtime routine. For adults, this may mean that we brush our teeth, we wash our face, we change into pajamas or something different then we were wearing during the day, maybe we read a book or some adults watch TV (which is the number one sleep crutch among adults in the US but that is a topic for another article). This process is important because it helps our brains prepare for the process of falling asleep and also helps it begin to produce melatonin, the hormone that helps us to fall asleep and stay asleep for long stretches at a time. The bedtime routine for a baby or child serves the same purpose.
Babies as young as about 8 weeks old can begin to appreciate a bedtime routine. Sometimes the question of what point in the night to start this becomes a challenge to figure out because bedtime may not yet be a fixed time. In fact, newborns typically have very late bedtimes (starting as late as 11 or 12 at night and gradually creeping earlier) until about 3-4 months old when it usually shifts to some time between 6 and 8pm. Yes, I realize that for newborns, bedtime really may just be when you finally turn out the lights and change into a different pair of sweats and try to catch a couple of hours of sleep before the next waking and feeding. As your baby approaches 8 weeks, it is a good idea to begin to incorporate a bedtime routine prior to whatever seems like it will be bedtime. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t actually fall asleep soon after the bedtime routine. That is okay. Eventually it will become easier to determine when that day’s bedtime really is (I say “that day’s bedtime” because until nap schedules start to evolve, which may not be until close to 6 months or sometimes a few months later, the actual bedtime may move around a bit based on when your child woke from their last nap).
Bedtime routines for babies
I will typically encourage parents of babies to keep bedtime routines pretty short and concise. It doesn’t need to be longer then about 20 mins and this is often including a feeding. This is partly because babies are sometimes very tired by the time the day comes to an end so a long drawn out bedtime can lead to them becoming more overtired and exhausted. The other reason to keep it short is because as your child grows and you move into the toddler and preschool years, your child will likely want to add on to their bedtime routine with an amazingly creative variety of stall tactics. If your routine was pretty short to begin with, it has some room to grow before it is taking 45 minutes to an hour to get through your bedtime routine. For babies, bedtime often entails a short bath or maybe just a brief washcloth wipe down. When you come into the room where your baby will be sleeping, it is a good idea to turn down the lights and turn on a white noise machine if you are going to use one. You are then light and sound changes to create associations between the things that are changing in your child’s environment and what is about to be happening (going to sleep for the night). Many families like to do a short infant massage as they are putting on lotion, a diaper and pjs. You can certainly attempt to read a short book if your child isn’t too tired, but for many infants, they don’t have the attention span to read a book or they are so tired that they are trying to eat the book or hit it away. If this is the case, don’t stress, there are plenty of other great opportunities in the day to read to your child. For babies there is often a feeding as part of the bedtime routine. Where to put this feeding in the process is often related to how old your child is and if you need to use the feeding to help your child fall asleep at bedtime. I speak with moms all the time who will say “I nurse my baby to sleep…I know this is bad” or “my baby falls asleep drinking his bottle…I know this is bad.” Neither of these things is bad. It is only something to change when it is no longer working well for your family and also when your child is at an age when he is more capable of putting himself to sleep without needing the help of a sleep crutch to fall asleep. When you are no longer nursing to sleep or feeding with a bottle to sleep, I have parents move the feeding to before the bath or before the pjs go on. I will also often suggest to families that they just walk around the room, saying good night to three things in their child’s room and sing a song before putting their child in the crib for sleep. These are further associations that your child will make between what happens prior to going to sleep and then what is coming next.
Bedtime routines for toddlers and preschoolers
For older children, more often they may have a bath regularly at bedtime, especially in the warmer months when they are outside, playing hard and getting dirty, or after a particularly messy dinner. Following last trips to the potty and teeth brushing, return to your child’s room for pjs and stories. As children reach the toddler years, the more parts of your bedtime routine that you child can make choices about, the better as going to bed is not a choice. For instance, your child can choose which toothbrush from 2 or 3 he wants to use, he can pick out his pjs, he can choose a few books to read (be sure to set consistent limits with books otherwise you will end up reading until you fall asleep yourself!). Some families prefer to play a quiet game or do a puzzle before bed. These are also great ideas. Then come kisses, maybe a song and the final tuck in. I always found it helpful to also ask my kids of there was anything else they wanted to ask me before I say good night. They often asked some silly, nonsensical question, but this seemed to head off a call back as it gave them a chance to get the last of their words out for the day. While bedtime for toddlers and preschoolers may sometimes feel like the home stretch after a long day, keeping that routine consistent and predictable is essential and will set you up for a smooth transition to sleep.