One of the most important components of your child’s sleep is their bedtime routine! This routine helps to cue their brain that sleep is coming and gets them ready to settle in for the night.
We all have a routine we follow, mostly in the same order, that helps us get ready for bed each night.
Personally, I take a nice warm shower, put my cozy jammies on, brush my teeth, relax with my husband and have a conversation that isn’t interrupted by snack requests and then it’s time for sleep!
We fall into these patterns quite naturally and they really do aid in our ability to go to bed. Which is why when things are thrown off while on vacation, we may not sleep as well or be able to fall asleep as quickly as we do at home.
The same goes for babies and children!
They find comfort in having a routine that goes through the same steps in the same order each night. When it’s done this way, they know what comes next and it helps them “accept” that it’s bedtime.
For babies 0-4 months, you can begin a bedtime routine with them from day 1. It can only help, not hurt anything!
Start their bedtime routine about 30 minutes before they are due down for bed. So, if your little one woke from their last nap at 6:00pm and bedtime will be 7:15pm, start this routine at 6:45pm.
Step 1: Bath or wipe down
You don’t need to bathe your child every single night, but I do recommend bringing them to the bathroom and just wiping down their face and hands with a warm washcloth on the days that you are not doing a bath. Do your best to keep the lights low and your voices low and calm.
Step 2: Put diaper on and feed baby
After bath, put their diaper on and feed the baby in the room they’re sleeping in with the lights on. Why feed in diaper only? Because this helps them to stay awake and take a nice full feed.
Step 3: Put PJs on and swaddle baby (if under 10 weeks) or put them in their sleep sack
Once they are fed, put their PJs on and swaddle or sleep sack. Please remember that if your baby has shown even one single sign that they are ready to roll, they must be moved out of the swaddle.
Step 4: Rock, bounce or sway while holding your little one until they are very sleepy
Newborns need assistance to sleep. They have very little self-soothing ability so they could very well need to be rocked or bounced all the way to sleep. But don’t be afraid to lay them down a little more awake than normal as you get comfortable with your routine. While their self-soothing skills are low, they are very sleepy at this age, and you could help them begin to develop these skills with practice during their first few months.
Step 5: Lay baby down once asleep or very drowsy
Once you see those long blinks or baby is asleep, lay them down in their crib or bassinet. Hold them close to you as you lower them down into the crib so that they are being lowered in a side laying position. Then, once in the crib, gentle roll them onto their back.
Here is what a newborn bedtime routine may look like:
Babies 4-12 months
By this age, you will want to be sure that you are being very consistent in how the routine occurs. As babies get older, they become more dependent on this routine and any offset could cause them to be upset.
Keep the bedtime routine between 20-30 minutes in length. Anything less may not be long enough to get ready for bed and anything more may be too much time and cause them to become annoyed or frustrated.
Before you start your bedtime routine, spend some time one on one with your child playing on the floor with no distractions. This will help alleviate any separation anxiety that could be present while releasing any last bits of emotions and energy that they have.
Step 1: Final feed
Start your routine with their final bottle or nursing session. Why are we doing this at the beginning? For a few reasons. This will help make sure they are awake to take a nice, full feed instead of fighting to keep them awake to finish. By staying awake during the feed, this helps break up any feed to sleep association they may have. If they feel like they can’t get to sleep without a feed, they’re going to have trouble linking sleep cycles together throughout the night. When this happens, both parents and baby are experiencing fragmented sleep and may not be getting long stretches of sleep at night.
Many families enjoy books in their routine. For this age group, I recommend reading books before you start the final feed or while you are feeding. Books can be very exciting and stimulating to young babies and we don’t want to completely relax them with a bath then ramp their brain activity back up by reading a book too close to bed.
Step 2: Bath time
You don’t have to do a full out bath every night with your little one. But we want to keep a place holder in the routine that “mocks” bath. Remember, follow the same steps in the same order. For the mock bath, you can either go into the bathroom and just wipe your little one down with a warm cloth or you can choose to fill up the tub with some warm water and just let them sit in the bath for a few minutes rather than fully washing them. Either option will work just fine!
Step 3: PJs & sleep sack
After bath, bring them to their room and try to keep lights low. You can use a lamp instead of an overhead light or a hallway light to help promote the production of melatonin (the sleepy hormone). Get them dressed and ready for bed in PJs and a sleep sack.
Step 4: Sing Sleepy Time Song
Once they are dressed, pick your little one up and sing a sleepy time song. This can be something short and sweet like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or My Little Sunshine but make sure that it is the same song each night for bed and every day for naps. While you’re holding your child and singing their song, you can walk around the room and turn the lights out and put their sound machine on.
Step 5: Lay down in their crib
You’ve sung the song, prepared the room and gave goodnight kisses! Now, it’s time to lay them down in their cribs and give them space to fall asleep.
Here is what their routine looks like:
Toddlers/ Older children 12+ months
Now that your child is getting older, we can change up their routine a bit! They may not be taking a bottle or a nursing feed before bed anymore so we can replace that with a snack. However, some will keep a feed in the routine for a few months after their first birthday so be sure to still do that as the first step.
With toddlers and older children, it’s important to understand that they have lots of emotions. A lot of the time, these emotions can build up throughout the day and boil to the surface once bedtime rolls around.
To help alleviate this from occurring in a not so pleasant way during the bedtime routine, make sure you play hard before starting their routine. Lots of energy expelling activities and laughter will help release some of these feelings before the bedtime routine.
Another note with toddlers and older children is to be completely transparent and redundant. You want to constantly remind them what is happening next and when. You can use a timer to help them better prepare for the transition. Preparation is key to avoiding tantrums.
Step 1: Bedtime Snack
Avoid sugary snacks before bed. You also want to try to have protein in the snack. My favorite go-to is banana and peanut butter. While bananas do have natural sugar, they also are high in magnesium which helps with sleep.
Step 2: Bath + brush teeth
Using the timer before and after batht time will help tremendously in avoiding the battles that typically come with starting or ending bath time. Be sure to give them a warning every few minutes so that they don’t feel blindsided and so they can mentally prepare for bath to be over.
Step 3: Get dressed
After bath, go into their room and let them choose from 2 PJ sets. Get them dressed and cozy for bed!
Step 4: Cuddle and sing sleepy time song or read 1-2 books
I typically prefer to keep books in the beginning playtime part of the process because some little ones tend to really try and push when it comes to books. They often will yell “just one more”! If you really want to keep books before bed, that’s totally fine! But try to make sure that they really understand that you’re going to read 1-2 books and no more than that. If you like to keep the books in the beginning, you can add a snuggle and sleepy time song here. Make sure you’re singing the same song each time to help act as a sleep cue.
Step 5: Lights out and into bed
Once the song or books have come to an end, turn out their light, put on the sound machine and get them to bed. If your child says they need a nightlight, use one that is red, amber, orange or yellow in color.
Remember to have patience, confidence, and a contagious sense of calm. Moving through the routine while exhibiting these feelings will really help your child to calm down and settle in for bed!