How to Create the Best Bedtime Routine

Bedtime struggles are a hot topic with  parents that I work with and addressing the bedtime routine is a crucial step for setting your little one up for a successful night’s sleep.  Babies and children are very ritualistic – they crave predictability and consistency, which helps them feel safe and secure. Creating a bedtime routine for your child will give them that sense of security and go a long way to reducing struggles at bedtime. Here are some tips to consider as you start to map out what your child’s bedtime could look like. You can start to implement a more structured bedtime for a baby as young as 6 weeks, so don’t be afraid to start early! It can make a huge difference as your child grows older and they have an already established and predictable routine.

1. Start to ramp down 1/2 hour to an hour before bedtime

Turn off the TV, do some quiet activities and to start to wind down for the day.  You may even want to dim the lights or shut some blinds to signal this transition for your child. Avoid overly stimulating play (for example – no wrestling and roughhousing; “cough” “cough”, my husband). It helps to emotionally prepare them that bedtime is coming and the nice, gentle transition will cue them in that the routine is going to start.

2. Once you start the routine, keep the length short

The worst is when you get stuck in the cycle of bedtime taking anywhere from 1-3 hours to complete. Often times, a long bedtime routine where your child is just not settling down indicates that you may have missed their sleepy window (which I’ll focus on next). Limit the routine to 30-45 minutes as you begin to map out the plan.

3. Start with identifying the right bedtime

As I mentioned in #2 – a lot of times the simple shift of the bedtime to an earlier start will result in more cooperation from your little one. The right bedtime will differ by age, but most young babies over 6 months should be going down between 6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. That may seem early, but once they start sleeping through the night (7-7), that is a full 11/12 hours of rest which is what is developmentally appropriate. Bedtime may shift from anywhere between 7:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. for older toddlers/children. They will remain in that window for a while and will shift a little earlier when they drop their nap between age 3-4 years old (if they used to go to bed at 8, they should now go down at 7:30). The big focus is to avoid having your child be overtired when they go to bed, which can lead to night wakings and early rising.

4. Map out the steps to your plan

Sit down with your partner and decide what bedtime will look like.  Getting you both on the same page will help create that consistency for your child. Make sure all of these steps are done in their bedroom – with the exception of bath/brush teeth. Here are some ideas for what you can incorporate into your bedtime routine:

  • Milk/Nursing (preferably at the beginning of the routine so you avoid the association of nursing/eating to sleep)
  • Turn on white noise machine
  • Turn on low/dim lights
  • Bath
  • Brush teeth
  • Diaper change, PJ’s, Sleep Sack
  • Snuggle with lovey/blankie
  • Sing a song
  • Read a book
  • Say your “goodnight phrase” – at our house, the last thing we say to our children before we tuck them in to bed is: Nighty, night, have sweet dreams, Mommy/Daddy love you – they have come to learn that phrase signals it’s time for rest and time to sleep – I encourage you to create a special phrase with your little one!

After you decide on these steps and their order, make sure at the end of the routine you are putting your child down in their crib/bed, drowsy but awake so they learn how to fall asleep on their own.

5. Be consistent – seriously, to the exact book and/or song

I highly recommend  you do the same exact thing, in the same exact order, around the same time, every night. That might seem a little too strict, but going back to the fact that children are so ritualistic, they will come to crave this routine and any potential deviation may not be tolerated (in the case of my almost 3 year old, we surely cannot deviate from the same three songs we sing every night – even if I am still signing “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” and it’s April).

You can switch off who is point for bedtime and you may have a slightly different style – but the main thing to focus on is that you are doing the overall same routine that the other parent would be doing. That’s why I love the idea of ending with a nighttime phrase that both of you can repeat.

Parents often ask if bath time is apart of the routine, do they have to do it every night? Not necessarily – you can work it in every other night, or whatever schedule you are on if that works. Or, you can do a bath each night, just have them rinse off in warm water without soap to avoid over drying their skin.

As your child gets older, some components of the bedtime routine may change, but keeping a routine intact is very important to foster cooperation and avoid bedtime struggles.  I will be focusing on this topic, and sleep training overall, in a workshop at Blooma coming up on May 21st, 2016.  The class is directed towards parents of children who are 6 months – 2.5 years old.  If you are looking for some more guidance, check out our events page for more information!

I also recommend checking out the book, “Good Night, Sleep Tight” by Kim West, LCSW-C, aka The Sleep Lady. It gives you all the information you will need to develop a gentle sleep plan for your child that works!



About Elizabeth Sarles

Elizabeth Sarles is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach and the owner of Nite & Day. She lives in Edina, Minnesota with her husband Lien, two little guys – Lien and Harrison, and her first baby (and bed-hog), Eddie the Yorkie.

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