Before I became a parent, I had the good fortune of having a few close friends who braved the parenting journey before me, so that I could learn from them, their successes, and their mistakes. If there is one thing that stuck in my mind during that time was that kids are masters at playing their parents. It is a necessary developmental stage for children to push back against boundaries, and boy, do they ever push back!
I would witness the biggest, oscar-worthy meltdowns when my friend would tell her tot that it was time for bed. I watched as a 4-year old stayed up until well past midnight because they “just weren’t tired”. I also got to see first-hand the immense benefit of having a bedtime routine in place, as a friend’s usually-defiant 2-year old marched obediently up to bed, in full anticipation of the lovely bedtime routine that was about to take place. I knew then that if I did nothing else right as a parent, my kids would have a solid bedtime routine.
When our son was born, one of my biggest worries was whether he was getting enough sleep or not. I tracked every nap time to the minute, calculated the hours of sleep he got each night, and fretted endlessly about whether or not he was rested enough. It turns out that I didn’t need to worry quite so much, but as a first-time mom, I wanted to make sure I was doing things right.
We established a bedtime routine right from the beginning, as soon as our son was sleeping more consistently through the night. It paid off tremendously, because even to this day at 8-years old, our son is still a fantastic sleeper.
Creating your own bedtime routine
Everyone’s bedtime routine will look a little different, but there are a few key components that you can keep in mind when establishing your own routine.
Determine how much sleep your child needs
Depending on how old your child is, they will need different amounts of sleep. While a newborn requires between 15 and 18 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, older school-age children only require between 10 and 12 hours of sleep each night. Identify what time of morning your child typically wakes up, and work backward from there. If you know they need about 10 hours of sleep, and they usually wake up around 7:00 a.m., then you will want them heading to bed around 8:00 – 8:30 p.m. Start your bedtime routine about a half hour before you want them falling asleep.
Set a time frame for your routine
Not only are children masters at playing their parents, they are also masters at stalling. We’re talking sloth-like movements when you’re wanting them to move quickly. It can be exasperating, but keep your cool and hold firm on your routine. If the bedtime routine is well-established with little to no wiggle room, then your child will not challenge it quite as much; they will just accept that this is the norm and will get it done. Not only that, but if it is a positive atmosphere during your bedtime routine, then your little one will not only go along with it, they will look forward to it each day. So, set a time frame for how long you want the routine to last, and use that to determine what time you should begin.
Start to unwind before the bedtime routine starts
Kids don’t naturally transition from busy to resting very well, so they sometimes need a bit of help with that. Begin to slow down your day before actually starting the bedtime routine. Turn off the screens, stop the running and jumping games, and encourage quiet play, to help your child begin to settle down and prepare for bed. This is not the time to break out in a tickling match or game of tag, as this will get your child’s adrenaline pumping and will make it that much harder for them to settle down for bed.
Offer as many choices as you can
Kids love to feel that they have some control over their lives, so offering choices whenever possible can help to create a more positive environment with fewer power struggles. The bedtime routine is not up for negotiation, however there can be elements in the routine that your child can be part of deciding. Ask them if they want to wear the yellow jammies or the blue ones. Would they like to read one story or two tonight? Do they want to read the stories in bed or in the rocking chair? Do they want bubbles in their bath or not? There are lots of ways that you can help your little one to feel more in control of the situation, while still managing to stick to the bedtime routine.
Check in with yourself before starting the routine
I don’t know about you, but by the end of day, I’m feeling pretty done with it all. I’m touched out, talked out, and tapped out. My energy is gone, and my patience is dwindling, so I’m not always in the best frame of mind to get through the bedtime routine in a positive way. I’ve learned, however, to check in with myself before starting it. I take a few deep breaths, taking a few minutes for myself to calm and centre my mind and body. I let go of the tensions of the day, and remind myself that I can return to them if needed after my child is asleep. This little ritual just helps me to be more mindful and present when putting my child to bed, which in turn creates a more pleasant experience for them as well.
Create a safe, soothing atmosphere
We wouldn’t be able to go to sleep very well in brightly-lit, loud chaotic areas where we felt agitated or unsafe, and neither can our children. Set the stage for sleep by creating a safe, soothing atmosphere that engages all of your child’s senses. Dim the lights and use calming nightlights to soothe their sense of sight. Use lotions, essential oil diffusers, or bubble baths with soothing scents like lavender and chamomile. Settle their sense of sound by playing soft music or white noise. Engage their sense of touch by cuddling or holding their hand while you read them a story. Give them a cool glass of water to soothe their sense of taste. Help teach your child to be mindful of how their own body is feeling, how these activities are helping to calm their body, and how to feel present during this bedtime routine.
Connect through rituals
One thing that both of my children still recall from their toddler years is a specific song that I sang to them each night, ever since they were infants. It is not a particularly special or relevant song, and my singing voice is certainly nothing to write home about. But, the ritual itself that was created through this routine is something that gives them great comfort. Develop your own special rituals and connect through those rituals each evening. It might be saying a special prayer together, singing a special song, or saying goodnight to all those we love. Whatever it is, keep that ritual as part of your bedtime routine.
Bedtime routines for different ages
The bedtime routine that you establish for your toddler will look markedly different than the bedtime routine you may incorporate for your school-age child, but they are equally as important. Here are some sample bedtime routines, depending on your child’s age.
Infant bedtime routine
6:15 p.m. Give your baby a bath, put calming lotion on them, a clean diaper, etc.
6:30 p.m. Put jammies on, dim the lights in the room, put on calming music
6:35 p.m. Nursing/bottle (this time frame will vary depending on how long your baby feeds)
6:50 p.m. Burp baby, gently rock, cuddle, read a quiet story
6:55 p.m. Baby should be nice and drowsy; place them in their crib before they’re fully asleep
7:00 p.m. Baby is hopefully headed off to dreamland!
Toddler bedtime routine
An hour or so before bed, begin to signal the end of the day by turning off the TV, dimming some of the lights in the house, playing some calming music, and doing quiet activities.
If your child normally gets hungry at night or wakes up really hungry in the morning, you can always offer them a light, healthy bedtime snack before starting the bedtime routine. Keep it light, and a nice mix of protein and carbs. Things like crackers and cheese, a bowl of cereal, or some yogurt and granola are great choices.
7:00 p.m. Start a bath for your toddler, let them play in the tub for a while, as the warm water is soothing and helps to calm them down
7:15 p.m. Let your toddler choose their jammies (“Are we wearing pink hearts or purple unicorns tonight?”)
7:20 p.m. Brush your toddler’s teeth (let them help, but make sure their teeth are brushed well)
7:25 p.m. Stories and cuddles – let your child choose the book(s) you will read
7:40 p.m. Final goodnights, I love you’s, and hugs, give them their lovie or stuffy to cuddle
7:45 p.m. Leave the room. If your child gets upset, let them know you will be back to check on them shortly.
School-age child bedtime routine
If your school-age child is also one who would benefit from having a small bedtime snack, offer this to them before they start their bedtime routine. Keep the food choices healthy, with minimal sugar.
7:30 p.m. Put on pajamas, brush teeth, use the toilet
7:45 p.m. Quiet time in their room playing quiet, reading, etc. No screens!
8:00 p.m. Read a story together, have a quiet chat, enjoy a cuddle
8:15 p.m. Lights out
If they are not tired, they can have an additional 15 minutes to read quietly until 8:30p.m.
This routine can be adjusted for older children by simply starting the routine later in the evening.
Sleep is a vital component of your child’s development, and as parents, we play an important role in helping them to develop healthy sleep habits right from day 1. Develop a bedtime routine that works for your family, and strive to stick with it as much as possible. There will always be times when the routine is thrown out the window due to holidays, vacations, or family visiting. But, for the most part, adhering to your bedtime routine sets your child up for a good night’s sleep, which in turn provides so many benefits to them physically, emotionally, and mentally. As the Dalai Lama once said, “Sleep is the best meditation.”