It is never too early to start a bedtime routine! I would suggest starting as young as 2-3 weeks of age. Whilst the steps in a bedtime routine won’t help a baby of that age to sleep better, the process is dose-dependent meaning it works better the more you do it. The earlier you start, the earlier your little one will associate the process as preceding sleep. It’s also never too late to start a bedtime routine! So, no matter the age of your child, creating a simple and positive routine is a great idea.
The final two hours of the day are integral in building a settled overnight sleep. For many families, the run-up to bedtime is a mad rush of nursery pick-up, whipping up an evening meal and trying to get a little one into bed without a tired meltdown. Whenever I work with a family, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve but here is my comprehensive list of what we’re aiming for.
In the run-up to bedtime, we want a little one to be pumped full of melatonin, the hormone which makes us feel sleepy. Melatonin is produced in low-levels of light – hence why we typically sleep when it’s dark. The blue-light emitted by screens inhibits melatonin production which is why they are best avoided in the run up to bedtime – even if a little one can get to sleep shortly after screen-use, the often don’t stay asleep as melatonin is vital for both. You can give your little one a helping hand with melatonin production by drawing the curtains and turning down the lights as bedtime approaches.
Calm and quiet play is a great substitute for screen-use close to bedtime. Sleep is a period of separation for your little one and some quality one-to-one time in the run up to bed can help a child to anchor which is important. Creating the time for just 10-15 minutes of focussed play with your little one before commencing their bedtime routine often pays dividends.
None of us would give our little one a coffee pre-bedtime but hidden caffeine is a common sleep-blocker with chocolate and fizzy drinks being common culprits. Great options for a pre-bed snack include bananas, eggs and wholegrains such as cereals or a slice of brown toast with a low-sugar peanut butter. When we eat is also important in relation to sleep. If a little one is having a full evening meal, aim to have this around two hours before they are settling for the night to enable the digestive process to have calmed. Sometimes this just isn’t feasible with the logistics of modern-life in which case be mindful of serving up easily-digestible, low-sugar foods close to bedtime.
Bedtime routines work best in my experience when there is a flow from the daytime area straight to the bathroom and then to the room where your child sleeps – with no detours in between. Going in and out of rooms is stimulating for a little one and can make the settling process harder. This is especially so if there is a return to a room a child associates with daytime play. So, once you’ve bid farewell to downstairs, don’t return – instead, complete all bathroom activities then move to the room where your little one sleeps.
For most children, no matter what their age, a bedtime routine of 30-40 minutes is perfect – from the point of going upstairs to them being in a position to fall asleep. The younger a child is, the shorter I would keep the routine but at any age, when the process extends beyond 40 minutes, the steps tend not to link together and the focus on the end goal of sleep can be lost. Baths lasting 5-10 minutes tend to be ideal – long enough to get fresh and clean and have a good splash around without becoming an activity in themselves.
If getting your little one dried and into their pyjamas is a battle, complete this in the bathroom. This means that you can keep the bedroom a calm environment that your child associates with sleep rather than being the place they are wrestled into their nightwear.
Babies and young children thrive on consistency and predictability – knowing what comes next helps them feel secure. This is why little ones often go through stages of wanting to read the same bedtime story every night for weeks – or even months! Whilst boring for us, knowing how the story will go can be comforting for our child. The more consistent you can make a bedtime routine, the better. The same steps in the same order, even down to saying goodnight to the same three teddies can make a real difference in how easily a little one settles down.
This doesn’t mean you need to bath a child every night or not at all though! Alternating between a bath one night and simply washing hands, face and nappy area the next works well for little ones whose skin doesn’t tolerate a daily bath well.
The steps in a bedtime routine are driven by what needs to get done and what a child likes – there are no set rules as to what should be included. Any of the following can work well, subject to age and whether a little one enjoys them:
Once a child has a strong and consistent bedtime routine, it can help them adapt well to a change of environment and/or who puts them to bed as the routine itself provides security and becomes the cue for sleep. What’s not to love about that?!