Mastering sleep routines: Navigating multiple children
Bedtime chaos in families with multiple children is all too familiar, with exhausted parents juggling the sleep needs, schedules, and routines of each child. Instead of a peaceful time to unwind and connect, it often feels like a frantic race to the finish line. But fear not! We're here to help streamline the process and meet the varying needs of each child.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
Understanding the unique needs and personalities of each child
Coordinating sleep routines for multiple children in a family begins with determining each child's sleep needs. You can find recommended sleep schedules for babies and children up to age 3 here, and information on sleep needs for older kids here.
Consider the ages, temperaments, and sleep preferences of your children as well. While older siblings typically have later bedtimes, factors like dropping naps or early wake-ups may require adjustments. For example, a 2 year old who naps may need a later bedtime than a 5 year old sibling who no longer sleeps during the day. Although it may be challenging, prioritize each child's best interests when making bedtime decisions, even if it means an earlier bedtime for an older child.
If one child is more easygoing, you might be able to put them to bed slightly earlier, allowing you to focus on a more spirited sibling. Additionally, when one child is an infant, you may be able to keep them close in a wrap or carrier while attending to their older sibling(s). With a bit of planning and flexibility, you can create a harmonious bedtime routine for your family.
Synchronizing children's schedules in a family can have numerous benefits, such as maximizing family time and creating opportunities for parents to rest or handle tasks. Initially, managing two schedules is usually easier when your second child is a newborn, as they require ample sleep and can often be held while focusing on the older child. Once the youngest settles into a predictable schedule (around 6 months or older) coordinating bedtime routines and aligning naps with the older child's routine may become feasible.
Once both (or all) of your children are on a regular sleep schedule you may find you want to make some adjustments to align them a little closer to their siblings. Since they’ll have different sleep needs, you may only be able to bring one nap and/or bedtime in sync at certain ages.
Here are some things to try:
Adjust wake-up times
Start by setting a consistent wake-up time for all kids. This sets the tone for the day and can be the anchor point around which other activities, naps, and bedtimes are scheduled.
Consider the wake-up time of each child, aiming for a consistent 30-minute window within which they wake up. For example, if a child typically wakes between 7:00 AM - 8:30 AM, this variation can make naps and bedtime less predictable and therefore harder to coordinate with their sibling’s schedule. Rousing your child by 7:30 AM (and keeping the wake-up time between 7:00 AM - 7:30 AM) can help regulate naps and bedtime.
Additionally, if the younger child's bedtime is later than the older child's and you want to bring them closer together, you can consider gradually shifting the younger child's wake-up time earlier. Adjust naps and bedtime accordingly.
While it's trickier to move wake-up times later, you can also give it a try. Patience is key, as it can take time to shift schedules and changes can take time to settle.
Overlap the naps
You might strive to overlap the afternoon nap for all children. For example, when the youngest is on a three-nap schedule, their second nap may align with the older child's single nap. You might not be able to overlap the entire nap period, but even 30 minutes to an hour of overlapping nap time can be helpful.
Tips for coordinating bedtime
Managing bedtime with multiple children can be tricky whether you have a partner to help or you’re handling it on your own. Here are some strategies to help make it go as smoothly as possible:
Tip #1: Establish consistent nap and bedtime routines
Clear routines help babies and young children understand what comes next and accept sleep time. It can be helpful to create a consistent bedtime routine that works for all children, adapted as needed for different ages. This might involve storytime, quiet play, bathing, and brushing teeth. Read more about setting up a strong pre-sleep routine here.
Tip #2: Aim for consistency
Older children can benefit from visual aids. Create a routine chart or book that includes each step of the bedtime routine to help everyone stay on track and minimize resistance. Narrate each step to keep the routine moving smoothly and let your older child assist in getting their younger sibling(s) ready for bed.
Tip #3: Do the bedtime routine together
Gather in one child's bedroom or a common area of the home. If using a bedroom, start with the child who will be put to bed first to avoid disrupting their relaxation. If space is limited, read in a common area before transitioning to the bedroom for a song and cuddle before saying goodnight.
Tip #4: Stagger bedtimes
Alternatively, if there’s a significant age or sleep need difference, consider staggered bedtimes. You might begin the bedtime routine for the younger child first, then proceed to the older one(s). Each gets individual attention and they both end up in bed at the right time for their needs.
Tip #5: Expect sibling disruptions
When settling one child, it may be challenging to keep the other child from disrupting the calm bedtime vibe. It can be helpful to prepare a "busy box" or a collection of quiet toys and books to keep the older child occupied right outside the bedroom door while you assist the baby. If the baby's settling time exceeds 20 - 30 minutes, you can spend a few minutes with the older child, then try again later. You can always try bringing the children together for the routine when they’re a bit older.
Tip #6: Try rest time for non-nappers
For older kids who've outgrown naps, implementing a "quiet rest period" during the younger one’s nap time can help ensure the whole family gets a restorative break.
Managing sleep interruptions
Dealing with night wakings is exhausting when you have one child. But when both children are waking in the night it can feel like you’re pulling an all-nighter night after night! Here are some things to keep in mind:
Consider delaying sibling room-sharing
If your children are sharing a room, then night wakings can feel even tougher since one may wake the other and then you’re dealing with two children awake at the same time as opposed to one. Some families find it helpful to wait until both children have minimal night-wakings before putting them together in one bedroom.
Independent sleep habits can improve sleep
Young babies and children do sometimes wake in the night, even if they have excellent sleep habits. But research  shows that children who fall asleep independently as opposed to getting parental help falling asleep (e.g. being rocked or fed to sleep) tend to have fewer night-wakings and sleep longer overall.
Addressing typical needs can prevent post-bedtime requests
Leave a water bottle on their nightstand or have a "last call" for water to avoid frequent requests. Offer extra cuddle time or hugs before leaving the room to help ensure all needs are met.
Establish family sleep rules for older children to promote better sleep for all
Keep the rules simple, limiting them to three or four at most. Examples include resting and closing their eyes until morning (toddler clocks that provide a visual cue can be helpful here), not waking sleeping family members when waking up at night, and staying in their own beds and rooms at bedtime.
Nightmares can occur even with good sleep strategies
If your preschooler or older child has been having bad dreams, discuss nightmares during the day with your child, providing comfort and support. Limit exposure to intense or scary content before bed, promote relaxation, and ensure your child gets sufficient sleep for their age to reduce nightmares and bedtime fears.
Limit screen time and blue light
Limit screen use, which can disrupt sleep . The blue light emitted by screens affects the production of melatonin, the sleepy hormone, which means it can be harder for little ones to fall asleep at night if that’s been suppressed. Screen content can be overly stimulating too. It's recommended to put screens away for at least an hour before bedtime for both children and adults.
Coordinating schedules and routines for multiple children can be challenging, but establishing healthy sleep habits can help align them to some extent.
For families with more than one child, once you’ve taught your children healthy sleep skills and have them on a great schedule, you’ll be able to appreciate how well-rested everyone is. When everyone in the family is well rested it’s much easier to get along and have fun together!
Multiple children sleep routines FAQ
Q: How can I synchronize the sleep schedules of my children who have different ages and sleep needs?
Aim for a consistent wake time for all children. This not only shapes the structure of the day but also serves as the cornerstone for organizing other routines like activities, naps, and bedtimes. While you may not be able to synch all sleep periods, look for ways to overlap naps and coordinate bedtimes. For example, a younger baby’s second nap may overlap with an older sibling’s only nap.
Q: My older child has trouble falling asleep while the younger one sleeps easily. How can I manage this?
Try to help your easier sleeper to bed first. This way it will be quiet for your other, more difficult sleeper and you’ll be able to focus your attention on helping your child fall asleep. You can also utilize relaxation techniques like mindfulness and breathwork to help them calm their bodies. Finally, ensure your older child has enough wake time between the end of their nap and bedtime as many preschool-age children need 6 hours after their nap in order to build adequate sleep pressure to easily fall asleep at bedtime.
Q: What are the benefits of syncing sleep schedules among siblings?
Syncing sleep schedules can allow for bonding time for families during nap and bedtime routines since everyone will be able to be together. Additionally, when children all go to sleep easily on the same schedule, it allows parents to have adult time together, time for chores and other work, as well as time to relax.
Q: What if my children have different sleep preferences or habits?
By understanding the individual preferences and needs of each of your children, you can best coordinate their routines and schedules. If you know one child likes to read alone before bed for example, you could put that child to bed first and then be able to focus on your other child.
Q: Is it normal for siblings to have different sleep patterns?
Sleep patterns vary according to age, individual sleep needs, and temperament. However, being an “early bird” or “night owl” does tend to run in families.
Q: How can I handle sleep interruptions when one child wakes up and disturbs the sleep of the others?
Consistent white noise can help minimize disruptions from one child waking another. You can place white or pink noise in their bedrooms and also in the hallways between their rooms to block out noise.
Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.
A Review by Mindell JA, Kuhn B, Lewin DS et al. (2006) Behavioral treatment of bedtime problems and night wakings in infants and young children. SLEEP 2006;29(10):1263-1276. https://aasm.org/resources/practiceparameters/review_nightwakingschildren.pdf
Vijakkhana, N., Wilaisakditipakorn, T., Ruedeekhajorn, K., Pruksananonda, C., & Chonchaiya, W. (2015). Evening media exposure reduces night-time sleep. Acta paediatrica (Oslo, Norway : 1992), 104(3), 306–312. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25521612/