If you’ve ever typed into Google, “Why won’t my baby sleep?” you’re not alone. In fact, you’re among thousands of other parents/caregivers who are likely as tired as you are. Chances are, if you have gone down the Google rabbit hole at 2:00 a.m. (or just asked your pediatrician for sleep advice), then you’ve most likely been introduced to the concept of a bedtime routine.
A bedtime routine can be an incredibly helpful tool in establishing healthy sleep habits and good sleep hygiene. Infants and young children thrive on routine; in fact, they are comforted by predictability (spoiler alert: most adults are this way, too!). Plus, a young mind is exposed to so much new information every day that it’s reassuring for a child to know that they can depend on certain events to have a predictable structure.
Bedtime routines are also a cue to their brains and bodies that sleep is coming. With a predictable bedtime routine, your little one will start to recognize the order of the routine and begin to anticipate what comes next. With enough repetition, this process happens automatically in a very Pavlovian way. A calm and successive routine will also make the onset of sleep come more easily. Can you imagine if you walked out of your workout and immediately someone told you that you had to lay down and fall asleep? This would be nearly impossible, and the same is true for our little ones. By allowing them some time to unwind, you are making the falling asleep process that much easier.
How to Create a Bedtime Routine
If you’re totally lost on where to start or how to create an effective bedtime routine for your little one as they grow, don’t worry – I’ll help break it down for you. But first, here are a few general bedtime routine guidelines:
It doesn’t have to be long (but it shouldn’t be too short, either).
Throughout infancy and early childhood, bedtime routines should generally be between 20-30 minutes long and usually involve about 4-5 steps. But don’t set your stopwatch or stress too much about adding activities; this is just a loose frame of reference. If you have fewer steps or it takes a little longer, that is just fine! However, keep in mind that the purpose of the bedtime routine is to allow your little one some time to unwind and prepare their body for sleep but not to be too long that it seems to drag on and it becomes hard to recognize when the end of the routine is approaching.
It should be relaxing and enjoyable.
If your little one hates bath time or absolutely cannot stand sitting on your lap while you read book after book, don’t include it as a part of your bedtime routine. There is no law that says certain steps must be included, so find a good balance of what needs to be done (i.e. using the potty or brushing teeth) and what your little one enjoys.
Most of the routine should take place in your child’s sleep space.
This will help signal to your little one that sleep is imminent as well as help keep negotiating and horsing around to a minimum.
What’s a Good Bedtime Routine for My Child?
Bedtime routines can begin right away, but by the 6-week mark, it can be incredibly helpful to have a consistent and predictable nighttime pattern.
Newborn Bedtime Routines (0-3 months):
Bedtime routines at this age should always include a full feed as the last step so you can be sure your baby is falling asleep with a full tummy (which will set you up for a longer stretch of sleep.) Since feedings in the newborn period may take longer than 20-30 minutes, there probably won’t be many more “steps.” A sample routine might include:
- Quick bath/washcloth wipe-down
- Full feeding + burp
Baby Bedtime Routines (4-12 months):
As your baby gets older, sleep associations become incredibly strong. While this makes a predictable routine a wonderful tool for easy bedtimes, it can also cause a whole multitude of problems in the sleep department if you’re not careful. One of the biggest culprits of sleep struggles is when babies fall asleep while eating. Not only can this set them up for a cycle of frequent night wake-ups, but they are likely falling asleep before they are truly full! Set your little one up for success by feeding them earlier in the routine. 15-20 minutes won’t impact how long your baby is able to sleep before they need to eat again, but it can make a world of difference in helping them sleep through the night. A sample routine might include:
- Full feeding
- Bath/brush teeth
- Diaper/PJs/sleep sack
- 1-2 books/songs
Young Toddler Bedtime Routines (13-18 months)
Once your little one is primarily on solid foods, they likely will not need a full feeding as a part of their bedtime routine. While many nursing mothers will continue to nurse as part of the routine purely out of comfort and pleasure (which I applaud and encourage if it works for you), formula-feeding parents are usually weaning off formula and working to drop the bottle around this age anyway. The content of the bedtime routine will likely be very similar to the months prior, but you may be able to include some alternative types of 1:1 time in the form of more stories or singing together. A sample routine might include:
- Brush teeth
- Diaper/PJs/sleep sack
- 2-3 books
Older Toddler Bedtime Routine (18 months-3 years)
The older your little one gets, the more important a consistent bedtime routine becomes. With budding autonomy and a proclivity for negotiation, older toddlers are masters at bedtime stalling tactics. With a firm bedtime routine (especially one that has been consistently followed for their entire life), the chances of bedtime battles decrease significantly. However, it can be helpful to allow your little one some benign choices when it comes to certain things. For example, you may allow them to pick which bath toys they’d like to play with, choose their own PJs, or select 3 books to read. This can really help mitigate some of the struggles around the non-negotiables (like actually going to bed). A sample routine might include:
- Brush teeth
- 3-4 books
- Use the potty
Bedtime routines can be one of the greatest sleep tools in your tool belt. If your family does not already have a bedtime routine, hopefully these guidelines will help you create one and make 2020 the beginning of a decade of good sleep for your whole family.