How to solidify a sleep routine for your childUpdated Oct 06, 2022
Personal philosophies about pediatric sleep run on a wide spectrum. Some families gravitate toward lots of structure and rules, while others prefer more flexibility. No matter where you are on that continuum, a predictable bedtime routine is the one tool we universally recommend putting in your “sleep toolkit.”
IN THIS ARTICLE:
What is a sleep routine and what are the benefits?
A sleep routine is simply a set of activities that you’ll do each night with your child to prepare them for sleep. They refer to the activities that take place an hour or so before sleep but do not include any steps that might occur as a child is actually falling asleep (such as rocking or feeding to sleep).
Routines signal that it’s time to sleep
Consistent bedtime routines can help children (and adults!) of any age transition from playtime to sleep time. As adults, most of us don’t go straight from wakeful activities to sleep without some steps to wind down. Likewise, kids need that space and time to adjust to a restful time too.
A consistent set of steps before bed can also help infants understand what to expect, and that sleep is going to come next. This is especially useful when your baby can’t yet understand what it means when you say, “You need to go to sleep immediately, so I can finish rewatching the entire first season of Bridgerton.”
Bedtime routines improve sleep
Consistent routines before bed can improve sleep in multiple ways. A 2009 study found that “a consistent nightly bedtime routine is beneficial in improving multiple aspects of infant and toddler sleep, resulting in shorter sleep onset latency, decreased wakefulness after sleep onset, and increased sleep consolidation.” (Mindell et al., 2009)
This comes as no surprise to us. At Huckleberry, we find that children tend to fall asleep easier and stay asleep longer when families maintain predictable, calm sleep routines each night.
Benefits of bedtime routines extend beyond sleep
Interestingly, the advantages of a nightly bedtime routine go far beyond improving sleep. Research shows that they can also contribute to positive outcomes in “language development, literacy, child emotional and behavioral regulation, parent-child attachment, and family functioning, among other outcomes.” (Mindell & Williamson, 2018) This makes a lot of sense given that bedtime rituals tend to involve one-on-one time with a caregiver and often include reading, lullabies, and hygiene-related activities.
How to create a sleep routine for your child
Sleep routines don’t need to be long or complicated. We recommend choosing several steps that are age appropriate and will prep your kiddo for bedtime. Aim to do them consistently each night, and in the same order.
Here are some common sleep routine activities to consider:
Milk or formula for babies
A healthy snack for older children
Bathtime or washing hands and face
Cleaning gums or brushing teeth
Changing a diaper or using the potty
Massage or apply lotion
Cuddle or rock
Hugs and kisses
Read bedtime stories
Meditation and/or prayers
Play quiet games, like work on a puzzle or draw together
Bedtime routine examples
Families with infants will likely need shorter routines, while toddlers and preschoolers often need longer routines to wind down.
For example, a baby’s routine may look like this: (1) breastfeed or bottle (2) diaper change and light cleaning (washing hands, face, and gums) (3) lights are dimmed; pajamas and a sleep sack are put on (4) read a board book while snuggling (5) sing a lullaby while rocking (6) turn off the lights, kiss goodnight, and lay baby down awake in a crib.
A toddler or preschooler’s routine could look like this: (1) bath, lotion, and brush teeth (2) dim the lights and dress in pajamas (3) read a couple of short books while cuddling (4) visit the potty one last time (5) do a breathwork activity together (6) lights off, goodnight hug and kiss and lay down in bed while sleepy.
Take a look at the routines some of our sleep consultants have used with their own children here.
9 Tips and tricks to get your child to sleep better
(1) Keep it brief and simple
The younger a child is, the shorter the sleep routine generally needs to be. Younger babies can have a solid bedtime routine in 30 minutes or less, while toddlers and preschoolers sometimes need closer to 45 minutes to wind down. Nap routines are generally similar, but shorter (10 - 15 minutes).
(2) Stay consistent
Repetition and consistency are essential to a successful bedtime routine. Make sure that your routine is followed every night, if possible. While there will always be exceptions (e.g., falling asleep in the car on the way home from their grandparents’), the more dependable your routine, the stronger it will be as a cue for sleep.
(3) Choose an appropriate bedtime
Even if you have the world’s best routine in place, it won’t easily lead to sleep if you’ve mistimed bedtime. Review our sample sleep schedules here to help determine when your child’s bedtime should be.
(4) Place upsetting steps in the beginning
The bedtime routine should be calm. So if your child hates a necessary step (such as the diaper change or brushing teeth), you can move it toward the beginning of the routine to get it over with and allow time for your child to relax after that task.
(5) Move the bedtime feeding earlier
If you’re working toward helping your baby learn to fall asleep without the breast or bottle, we recommend moving the feeding earlier in the routine. That will make it easier for your baby to stay awake — which can help ensure a fuller feeding as well as give them the opportunity to fall asleep in their sleep space rather than in your arms.*
*While there’s nothing wrong with holding your baby to sleep in your arms, it can lead to sleep issues once your baby is past the newborn stage. If you prefer to feed or hold your baby to sleep and it works well for you, we fully support your decision!
(6) Skip bathtime if it’s energizing
Bedtime routines should be calm and relaxing. If bathtime energizes your child, feel free to leave it out of the bedtime routine, whether that means moving it to daytime or earlier in the evening.
(7) Give older kids choices
Toddlers and preschoolers have an impressive ability to stall at bedtime — it's developmentally appropriate, but can be frustrating nonetheless! When possible, give them defined choices to help them feel in control and cut down on delays. Try letting them choose which pajamas they want to wear (the striped ones or the polka dots for example) and which book they’d like to read (e.g., the one about bears or the one with that sneaky gorilla). Try to avoid screen time though, the AAP recommends that all screens be turned off at least 60 minutes before bedtime.
(8) Consider condensing (rather than skipping) steps
There will be times when your child is overtired, whether they skipped a nap or you had a special event that pushed bedtime late. Understandably, you may be tempted to skip over parts of your routine to avoid an even later bedtime. In some cases, this can backfire and cause a child to take longer to fall asleep since they didn’t get the cues, or time, they needed to wind down. If this sounds like your child, aim to shorten the steps when possible (e.g., choose a shorter book to read or just massage their legs) rather than skip a step entirely.
(9) Be ready to adapt as your child ages
Your child will mature and so should your routine. Don’t be afraid to drop steps that no longer work for your family, or incorporate a new one that seems important to your child as they get older.
Sometimes it’s easier to build frequent requests into your routine than have a power struggle over it each night. That might look like: saying yes to a third bedtime story as long as they get their PJs on quickly; having an official “last sip” of water; or proclaiming, “Yes, now is the time I will hug your teddy bear three times while I balance this sock on my head before I turn off your light!”
It’s a no-brainer. Implementing a regular bedtime routine can have a big impact on the overall well-being of a family. That’s why at Huckleberry we always recommend establishing bedtime routines as a foundational step toward lifelong healthy sleep habits.
We understand that starting (and staying consistent) with sleep routines can bring some challenges, especially if you have multiple children. But establishing the habit early on can lead to far more predictable and relaxing bedtimes throughout their childhood. That seems like a pretty big investment in your future evenings, no matter how you prefer to spend them.
Solidify a sleep routine FAQ
Q: How do I get my child into a sleeping routine?
Start doing the same set of activities each night before bed, in the same order. Ideally, the steps should prepare your child for bed, while maintaining a calm atmosphere.
Q: What age should I start a bedtime routine?
You can start at any age, but we recommend beginning at 2 months of age. That’s when a baby’s day-night circadian rhythm appears and nighttime sleep becomes more established.
Q: How do I establish a consistent bedtime routine?
Follow your sleep routine each night, in the same order, before your child’s bedtime. Your child will learn to connect the pre-sleep activities with the act of falling asleep.
Q: What is the best sleeping routine?
The best routine for your child depends on their age and your family’s preferences. Choose a few activities that you can consistently do before bedtime each night to help prepare your kiddo for sleep. This will give them time to wind down, and cue them that it is time for bed.
Q: What is a good bedtime for my child?
The optimal bedtime for your child depends on their age and sleeping patterns. Huckleberry subscribers can use the schedule creator to determine their child’s optimal bedtime.
Q: Why is a bedtime routine important for a child?
Predictable routines help children transition to sleep by allowing a child time to wind down and signaling that it is bedtime. Studies show that consistent sleep routines improve sleep as well as overall health and well-being.
Q: Does my child need a nap routine too?
We highly recommend establishing a nap routine. Pre-sleep routines during the day can help your child transition to sleep time easier, and help avoid overtiredness as a result. Feel free to borrow steps from your bedtime routine, but be sure to shorten the routine to 10 - 15 minutes if your child takes multiple naps.
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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.