We all know that a consistent bedtime routine helps children transition from being awake to falling asleep. But current research suggests that a consistent bedtime routine may do more than make bedtime easier – it may actually help children sleep better all night long.
A recent study published in the journal Sleep examines the relationship between bedtime routines and sleep outcomes, and the results make a compelling argument for structure and consistency at bedtime.
Researchers surveyed over 10,000 mothers worldwide with children age 0 to 6 years and asked a series of questions about their children’s day and night time sleep patterns, bedtime routines and behavior. The findings were significant. Children that had a regular bedtime routine had measurably better sleep outcomes. They went to sleep earlier, fell asleep faster, had less wake ups, and slept longer. Researchers also found that the more consistently the routines were implemented and the longer they were in place, the better the outcome. Children with consistent bedtime routines slept an average of one hour longer than there counterparts without a consistent routine – and, not surprisingly, their moms reported less daytime behavior problems as well.
If the results of this study inspire you to take a closer look at your child’s current bedtime routine, the following tips can help you zero in on what will work best for your family.
Think of bedtime as a two step process. Parents often get confused about how long their child’s bedtime routine should be and what activities should or shouldn’t be included. If you’re unclear, it may help to view bedtime as a two step process. Step one includes time for winding down and step two is the actual bedtime routine.
1. START WITH WINDING DOWN
Relaxing, calming activities that occur during the last hour or two before bedtime should be considered part of the winding down process. Think of these activities as part of the evening routine, not the actual bedtime routine. Although predictability is always a good thing, these activities don’t need to be set in stone or happen in the exact same order every night. They just need to create a basic structure for ending the child’s day. For example, dinner, quiet playtime and a bath may be the basic components of a typical nightly wind down, but skipping a bath because of an unexpected phone call or going out for an ice cream cone after dinner is perfectly okay. Obviously, it’s wise to avoid activities that may rev your child up during the last hour or two before bedtime. A wrestling match with daddy right before story time is rarely a good idea. Quiet, more peaceful activities will be much more helpful in preparing your child for sleep. It’s especially important to avoid screen time for the final thirty to sixty minutes before bedtime – numerous studies suggest that the light emitted from computers, iPads, iPhones, Kindle’s and televisions can halt the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us feel drowsy and fall asleep.
2. THEN START THE BEDTIME ROUTINE
Your child’s actual bedtime routine should consist of a predictable series of steps that happen immediately preceeding bedtime every night. These steps, when repeated in the same order every night, will help to cue their body and their mind that its time to sleep. The steps in the routine should be tailored to your child’s age and temperament. For example, an infant’s bedtime routine may be as simple as putting on a sleep sack, turning on the white noise machine and singing a lullaby. A toddler’s routine may include brushing teeth, a potty visit, three books, saying goodnight to the stuffed animals and assisting mom with turning off the lights. Routines shouldn’t be overly complicated or lengthy – 15 minutes for a baby and 30 minutes for a toddler is a good place to start. Be clear about the order of the routine and be as consistent as possible every night. If your toddler is constantly dragging out the routine (as they tend to do!), my article about ending bedtime battles has suggestions on how to keep things on track. And, of course, if your child hasn’t learned to fall asleep without assistance and is creating challenges at bedtime, implementing a solid sleep coaching plan to teach them how to fall asleep on their own can make bedtime a much happier time for the entire family.
Ultimately, the key to an effective bedtime routine isn’t as much about what you do, but how you do it. Create a plan, stick to it, and start early. Even newborns can benefit from a simple nightly routine. If you have more than one child and are struggling with how to manage two or maybe even three or four bedtime routines at once, there will probably need to be some compromising. Maybe your older child can entertain themselves in their room while you put your younger child to bed first, or you can develop a joint bedtime routine that includes everyone reading together in one sibling’s room before heading off to their own beds for a tuck in. Try not to rush your children through their routines – saying goodnight means separating from you, which can be challenging for some children. Focused attention for those last 15 to 30 minutes before bedtime will help you to reconnect after a busy day and go a long way to ease the transition both mentally and physically for your child.
Alison Bevan is a Baby and Child Sleep Consultant that has helped thousands of families get a good night’s sleep.
She is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach SM, founder of Sleepytime Coach and the Pediatric Sleep Consultant at The Center For Advanced Pediatrics, one of the largest and most comprehensive pediatric practices in the tri-state area. She is also a mother that has lived through the challenges of having a child with sleep problems.