Establishing a bedtime routine could be considered the first step towards positive sleep practices. Helping to prepare your child for sleep time can result in a calm onset of sleep that enables your child to achieve their sleep with greater ease, leading to the potential of falling into a deep and more restful slumber.
Introducing the concept of a pre-sleep ritual can be done from as early as 6 weeks of age-once your baby starts to respond to social cues, it’s considered a good time to begin some small steps that lead to message “it’s time for sleep”. Also, if your child is older and if you haven’t already, then you can begin to establish a peaceful process at any age and stage understanding that whenever you begin-this process will grow as your child does.
Ideal bedtime routines require a number of characteristics in order for them to serve their true function which is to prepare and enable going to sleep with ease. Ultimately, as your child gets older, you want to have a bedtime ritual that precedes sleep time and allows them to feel safe and secure enough to acquiesce to rest time.
The timing of bedtime itself, where it happens and how long you take with this preparation can make all the difference to your bedtime working for you.
Initially your baby’s bed “time” will be quite late. It is likely for the first 12 weeks or so-they will go to bed at the same sort of time as you-they tend to have an adult orientated bedtime and then slowly the biologically earlier bedtime starts to emerge, resulting in a bed “time” generally between 6-8pm give or take from 4 months to 6-8 years of age.
In the early days your bedtime ritual just needs to be few short steps that help your baby understand that there is a shift and that sleep is coming and/or expected. Bedtime routines, for all ages work much better if they happen in the bedroom where your child will sleep. This way it is a smooth operation and changing locations does not break the magic sleep spell as they are starting to relax.
Early-age bedtime routines may just be as straight forward as closing the curtains, dimming the lights, changing the nappy and helping your child into their sleep clothes and love to dream swaddle and giving them their bedtime feed.
As your baby gets older-this can be developed further with a potential allocation of 20-30 minutes within which to help relax, unwind and connect too.
Achieving a bedtime routine before your child is overtired can also have positive outcomes and mean that bedtime works better for you. For children who struggle to go to sleep or stay asleep the earlier the bedtime routine is provided, generally the better.
Baths are not necessarily a pre-requisite to a bedtime process. They can of course help to relax some children, but for others it only serves to wind them up meaning that it has the opposite desired effect. If you are providing a bath then this would be on top of the 20-30 minutes of the routine mentioned. Once you have finished the bath-it works well to go straight to the bedroom that your child will sleep in and begin the wind down process. The love to dream bedtime bundle caters for your bath and bedtime needs to include the safety support seat, a hand free towel and your swaddle. Remember that as soon as you baby shows signs of getting mobile to transition to the love to dream swaddle up.
Bedtime routines do not need to be sophisticated. Ideally it would happen before your child becomes over-tired-never under-estimate how early this may actually be. Once over 4 months of age, I try to establish a bedtime routine that may commence initially at 630pm to avoid an overtired resistance, but you will know your child best-acknowledging that intense eye rubbing, agitation, whiny moods, non compliance, clumsy, excitable and hyper-may all equal an overtired presentation that despite having a characteristically perfect bedtime, still does not yield the desired outcome-sleep with ease.
From 4 months onwards then bedtime rituals may include:
- Dimming the light, closing the curtains,
- Dressing your child for sleep-changing nappies, changing into pajamas and into love to dram swaddle or sleeping bag if you are using one
- It is helpful to follow the same order of events each time
- It may also help to have music or white noise on in the background- to regulate the heartbeat and help your child to relax-remember to turn off before lights out or to leave on for the entire sleep period so that we are not inadvertently compromising sleep ability overnight with music or white noise that shuts off after baby has gone to sleep
- Provide plenty of physical and eye contact-this is a loving connected time, indulge in skin to skin, hugs and cuddles-this is another time to help your child feel loved, safe and secure
- Reading to your baby from early on promotes a love of learning, enables self regulation and may mean that reading early on helps them to associate this activity with feelings of love and connection. Even though you may feel they are too young to understand –it is not the words themselves but the easy that you say them. Also, you can encourage imagination and curiosity with images and storytelling be it from books or from your own imagination.
- Some children are not interested in reading books-they either want to eat the book or throw them-don’t worry at all-you can engage with your child at bedtime on many levels –all of which support your end goal-promote feelings of love, positivity and relaxation and to enable an easier onset of sleep at bedtime that can also be replicated to help with day tome sleep too
- Invest of low impact play activities, puzzles, and shape sorting stacking cups. Older children might like dominoes, spot the difference or word games-whatever activity; ensure that it is connected time
- Generally bedtimes work better if it is done with just one parent-both may be over stimulating-it may also be a good idea early on to alternate every other bedtime, if possible, so that your child is interchangeable between parents and in turn more accepting of caregivers too
- If you have more than one child then it is possible to have one bedtime routine and include each child provided their bedtimes match-if you are working on establishing better sleep for one child specifically then it can be good at the start to do this exclusively if possible until their sleeping patterns are established and then introduce siblings
- It is also helpful if you spend lots of non sleep time in the bedroom as well-change nappies, get them dressed, play with them in their room-up to 30 minutes per day as this can help encourage positive associations with the room and in turn sleep time.
- It would seem that bedtime routines that don’t have an ending-ones that are driven by stalling tactics and delays, undermine your efforts to instill calm-so ensure that you bring the proceedings to a definitive close with a certain phrase or action and avoid falling into the “one more story” vortex that can be challenging to extricate from. Older children understand better if we specify how many books we will commit to and if we don’t deviate from that. Lamps on a timer and “I love you ritual” can help you define the end of the routine and the start of sleep time.
Remember it takes time to establish anything, but with patience and commitment and predictability bedtime can become a time that everyone looks forward to and enjoys.
Lucy Wolfe, is a Sleep consultant, Co-creational Parent and Relationship Mentor, Author of The Baby Sleep Solution and All About The Baby Sleep Solution, creator of “Sleep Through”, a natural bed and body sleep spray and relaxing rub, and Mum of four. She runs a private sleep consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families around the world