Is there a parent alive who doesn't wish bedtime went a little more smoothly? One of the best ways to get kids to settle down and go to sleep is by creating a regular bedtime routine, a ritual with Mom and Dad that lets young children know that bedtime is a happy and comforting way to end the day. Babies and young children are creatures of habit, and they enjoy the predictability of a ritual. Performing the same simple tasks before bed each night helps signal that everything is safe and sound, and that it's time to go to sleep. For more about your baby's sleep patterns and needs, click here.
Bedtime Do's and Don'ts
Sleep can be an emotional issue for the whole family. Children are often reluctant to separate from Mom and Dad at the end of the day. They're revved up, and they want to continue the fun. They may also have some fears about being alone in the dark or away from loved ones.
Meanwhile, sleep-deprived parents may be longing for a chance for some shut-eye themselves, or even just some quiet time with each other. On the other hand, parents who have spent a long day at work may crave more time with their children than bedtime allows. Often it's a mix of several feelings, making it a complicated time. Bedtime is hard for parents, too.
Here's what you can do to develop bedtime rituals that make sense.
DO: Consider a ritual carefully.
- A warm bath, then some snuggle time in clean jammies.
- Reading a favorite book or listening to soothing music.
- A favorite song, sung by Mom, Dad, or the whole family.
- Being tucked in tight with a special dolly, stuffed animal, or blanket.
- A gentle back rub.
Not every bedtime routine will stand the test of time. Once something becomes established in your child's mind, she'll come to expect it — and do you really want to sing the entire soundtrack to "The Lion King" night after night? Choose your rituals carefully, or you may regret them.
Some good, time-tested rituals to consider:
DO: Be consistent.
Have a fairly firm bedtime and a predictable order of events. Toddlers will benefit from a reminder about half an hour ahead of time, then another about 10 minutes before bedtime. Springing bedtime on them suddenly will only make them more reluctant to give up their current activity. Make sure the ritual takes place in their own room or sleeping areas, too.
DO: Keep activity low-key.
Don't overstimulate your child right before bed. For a baby, clear out the mounds of stuffed animals from the crib and offer her just one favorite to settle down with. Removing toys will signal that it's time to quiet down. For an older child, no roughhousing or watching TV before bed.
DON'T: Let the ritual become too elaborate.
With a 10-month-old, your routine may last just a few minutes, whereas 15 to 30 minutes is the right length of time for a toddler or preschooler. More than 30 minutes is almost always too long.
DON'T: Leave the lights on.
It's important for a child to learn to distinguish day from night — and that nighttime is for sleeping. If she does wake up and it's dark, she'll know that it's not time to get up yet. Leaving a bright light on is confusing.
DON'T: Put your baby to bed with a bottle.
First, it's true that sucking helps soothe a baby to sleep, but swallowing milk or juice throughout the night bathes the teeth in decay-causing sugars. Second, drinking while lying down can lead to fluid buildup in the ears. And third, if your child is accustomed to falling asleep with a bottle in her mouth, she'll have trouble settling down when she awakens during the night and finds no bottle or an empty one.
DO: Be flexible.
If your child is sick or going through a stressful time, it's perfectly okay to bend the bedtime rules a little. But don't dismantle the routine entirely. For instance, you might want to read one extra story, but not let her sack out in front of the TV.
DON'T: Rush into solid foods to help your baby sleep.
Some parents are convinced that babies wake up so often because they're not satisfied with a liquid diet. But breast milk or formula is the ideal food for a baby's first six months. Solids don't really promote sleeping at night, so don't introduce them before your baby is six months old unless your health care provider recommends it.
DO: Give bedtime your full attention.
Bedtime should be a special time for you and your child. Don't shortchange her by being preoccupied with something else. Focus on her alone as you snuggle, bathe, or read to her each night, and you'll both be the happier for it.
DON'T: Take away a bedtime ritual as punishment.
Keep it sacred.