So we know that having a routine is important. (If you missed that, head back to part 1!) What do you need to make this magic really work?

Your routine can be whatever you want it to be: it’s the repetitive nature that makes the difference. Sure, your six-month old is probably more interested in gumming The Cat in the Hat rather than listening to you read it, and your four-year old likely doesn’t want to be swaddled. Some elements will change over time. There are some tools you can use though:

Create a routine that lasts about 20-30 minutes. You want a pattern that lasts long enough that your child has the time to wind down, without taking so long that you lose momentum. Some nights you may have to condense, but be aware: for some toddlers and preschoolers, any effort to shorten their routine may result in bedtime taking even longer!

Have your routine move progressively toward the place where your child sleeps. Try to avoid having your child go upstairs to take a bath, then get into pajamas, then go back downstairs for a snack, then go back upstairs for a book. Keeping a steady progression helps to guide the direction, plus it helps you avoid opportunities for your little one to stall bedtime. The main winding-down part should take place where your child sleeps.

Keep the lights dim. The reduction of light in the evening is what tells the body to start producing melatonin, the hormone that regulates the timing of sleep.[1]Duffy, J. F., & Czeisler, C. A. (2009). Effect of Light on Human Circadian Physiology. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 4(2), 165–177.

Turn off all screens an hour before bedtime. Television and other technology mess with sleep in multiple ways. It’s a source of blue light, which is the specific end of the spectrum that affects sleep. Phones and tablets also tend to be extremely enticing. It’s hard to listen to your body telling you how tired you are when the moving images on the screen are so exciting! [2]Falbe, J., Davison, K. K., Franckle, R. L., Ganter, C., Gortmaker, S. L., Smith, L., … Taveras, E. M. (2015). Sleep Duration, Restfulness, and Screens in the Sleep Environment. Pediatrics, 135(2), e367 LP-e375. Retrieved from Technology before bed is strongly connected to shorter sleep length, delayed bedtimes, and increased night waking.[3]Allen, S. L., Howlett, M. D., Coulombe, J. A., & Corkum, P. V. (2016). ABCs of SLEEPING: A review of the evidence behind pediatric sleep practice recommendations. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 29, 1–14. It’s a good practice for all of us to power down before bed.

Make a clear distinction. That’s one of the benefits of the bath, if you choose to do one. If it’s part of your bedtime routine, it’s a clear signal to your little one that this is now time for bed, since the bath doesn’t usually happen any other time of the day. (Well, other than blow-out diaper clean-up, but that’s another matter!) If you like the bath idea but don’t want to do one every night, try just a damp wash cloth to wipe hands and faces on non-bath nights. For older children, your transition into bedtime might be something like having your child help clean up the toys, signaling that it’s the end of the day and we’re changing gears.

Connect with your child. Pressed for time at the end of the day? Overwhelmed with trying to put multiple kids to bed? Running low on energy? You’ve been running hard all day, and you just want your child to sleep! And you can do this. Take a deep breath, and know that it’s getting time with you at the end of the day that makes the difference for your child.[4]Teti, D. M., Kim, B., Mayer, G., & Countermine, M. (2010). Maternal emotional availability at bedtime predicts infant sleep quality. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(3), 307–315. Your day may have been hectic, your own emotions may be all over the place. But taking the time to connect with and respond sensitively to your little one builds in them a sense of trust. They learn that drifting off to sleep is a pleasant and relaxing thing.

From “Bedtime Routines for Young Children: A Dose-Dependent Association with Sleep Outcomes.”

Okay, you’ve built your bedtime routine. Johnny, tell her what she’s won!

Not only does a bedtime routine make it easier for your little one to fall asleep, but consistent routines also mean
– earlier bedtimes,
– easier time falling asleep,
– fewer night wakings,
– shorter night wakings,
– longer amounts of night sleep, and
– more total sleep.[5]Mindell, J. A., Li, A. M., Sadeh, A., Kwon, R., & Goh, D. Y. T. (2015). Bedtime routines for young children: dose-dependent association with sleep outcomes. Sleep, 38(5), 717–22.
Amazing, isn’t it?

These benefits increase with consistency. Little ones with bedtime routines more often during the week sleep more than those who sporadically have a routine. Similarly, the effort you put into keeping a routine going throughout childhood pays off in better sleep for your child as they grow.

But is it the bedtime routine itself that causes such a remarkable difference in sleep? Or is it that the families who are more likely to consistently have a bedtime routine are already incorporating other healthy habits in their home? A 2009 study by Jodi Mindell and colleagues [6]Mindell, J. A., Telofski, L. S., Wiegand, B., & Kurtz, E. S. (2009). A nightly bedtime routine: impact on sleep in young children and maternal mood. Sleep, 32(5), 599–606. Retrieved from tested a bedtime routine group versus a no routine group among families who identified their infant or toddler as having as sleep problem. As the researchers expected, after three weeks of consistently using a bedtime routine, the routine group began falling asleep faster, and bedtime behavior improved (toddlers were less likely to climb out of bed or call for their parents). But surprisingly, the length and quality of sleep improved as well. Infants and toddlers alike showed fewer night wakings and increased length of night sleep, both in comparison to before beginning a regular bedtime routine, and in comparison to the control group. Additionally, beginning a regular routine significantly improved the mothers’ mood. PLUS, all of this came about without changing the way the children were put to sleep. A bedtime routine won’t completely fix a night waking problem, but this is a tear-free way to begin making changes to improve your child’s sleep.

In many ways, bedtime routines act as a keystone habit. Having this one good habit in place naturally leads to other healthy patterns, like making bedtime a priority, which leads to well-rested children who are less likely to experience problems with daytime behavior.[7]Mindell, J. A., 2015

Family routines are healthy for children. They provide a sense of predictability, consistency, and stability. Every family operates in a different way, but for little ones to know that there is a rhythm to life in their small part of the world provides a sense of security. Routines also allow parents to have a greater feeling of confidence as they care for their children.[8]Fiese, B. H., Tomcho, T. J., Douglas, M., Josephs, K., Poltrock, S., & Baker, T. (2002). A review of 50 years of research on naturally occurring family routines and rituals: cause for celebration? Journal of Family Psychology : JFP : Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 16(4), 381–90. Retrieved from Research has found that when parents are generally consistent in how they care for their child throughout the day–setting appropriate limits as little ones grow and begin to test boundaries–that these are the children who also respond the most positively to having a consistent routine at bedtime as well.[9]Staples, A. D., Bates, J. E., & Petersen, I. T. (2015). IX. BEDTIME ROUTINES IN EARLY CHILDHOOD: PREVALENCE, CONSISTENCY, AND ASSOCIATIONS WITH NIGHTTIME SLEEP. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 80(1), 141–159. At 3 years of age, mothers who self-reported to be more inconsistent in their parenting practices had children who slept the least, regardless of whether they used a bedtime routine each night. Mothers who were consistent during the day but did not have a bedtime routine had 3-year-olds who slept slightly longer, just over 11 hours out of the day. And mothers who had consistent parenting practices AND a nightly bedtime routine had children who slept nearly 12 hours a day at this age.

Because ultimately, sleeping is an act of trust. A sleeping person is a vulnerable person. No parent is consistent 100% of the time. This isn’t a call to perfection, but rather a picture of evidence that all your effort matters, in a way you might not have realized or have been able to quantify before. When a child knows that they can rely on their parent to be responsive and predictable, routines lead to a greater ability to relax and to rest.

So go ahead and share what you’ve just learned. Someone else might need some magic sleep dust, too!

I'm ready for a good night's sleep

Welcome to Once Upon A Bedtime

A good night’s sleep isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales. It’s the spine that holds the book of life together.

My passion is to give you and your family the tools you need to rest well so you can live life to the fullest.