Bedtime routines are one of the most common questions I am asked about when speaking to parents. “When is a good age to start?” “What should a bedtime routine include?” “How long should it take?” Every child and their bedtime routine is unique. While some children might easily wind down with a bath before bed, for others this is far too much stimulation leading up to bedtime. Learning how to tune in to your child and read their cues can make all the difference when it comes to establishing an effective bedtime routine.
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While it isn’t always easy to pick up on your child’s everchanging cues, we do know that our children rely heavily on bedtime routines. Children’s brains are formed through patterns, routines, and predictability; meaning if our children know what they can expect, they will be able to rest assured knowing what is going/supposed to happen next. Because children find peace in knowing what to expect, there are many benefits to putting routines in place as soon as families feel they are ready to do so.
Just getting started and not sure where to start? No problem! Read below for five tips to keep in mind when creating and maintaining an effective bedtime routine.
1. Transitions Are Hard
Transitions can be difficult for adults and children alike. This is something we want to keep in mind with our children when transitioning them from a nap or to bedtime.
Picture this: your child is sitting outside playing in the grass, a loud construction truck is working beside them, they can hear kids playing, the dog barking, and the wind on their face. Your child is taking in all of these sights and sounds, and suddenly, ‘SWOOSH!’ they are picked up and placed in a dark room with an expectation to fall asleep. For a child who experiences a fear of missing out, this is a huge threat. For any young child in general, this is a lot to process!
When we think of a child’s day, we want to consider the routines and expectations (otherwise referred to as the flow of the day) that they can rely on. Instead of coming to a staggering stop, we might want to consider how we can trickle out of what we are doing and authentically transition into the next event; in this case, bedtime!
This does not mean we are expected to spend every day at home watching the clock, but rather focus on the flow and the transitions that take place organically.
2. “Connection always trumps the agenda.
As quoted by Deborah MacNamara “ If separation is the problem, attachment is the cure. Our voice, our connection is what brings the child to rest.”
How can ensuring connection with our children help to support a bedtime routine? Bedtime is the biggest separation of the day. Picture this: it’s time to go to sleep and your child wants to tell you all about their day, confirm what is happening tomorrow, show you all of their new skills, and/ or tell you about any discomforts. Making sure we have optimal times to connect throughout the day can help ease us into bedtime. It helps to fill the connection bucket so our children don’t feel the need to ask for this all at once when you are trying to support them to sleep. This is when you will want to stay attuned to your child to better understand the type of connection they are seeking. Does your child enjoy rough and tumble play? Are they looking to get some energy out? Or, do they enjoy snuggling up and reading a book with you?
3. Knowing who your child is, and what they need to fall asleep
Knowing who your child is, is invaluable in knowing what your child needs in their everyday sleep diet.
Who is my child and what do they need to be successful? This is the million-dollar question. Lots of things that happen throughout the day predict if and when we are ready to sleep. Once again, a routine helps to set the stage for consistent expectations and predictability.
Does your child have a difficult time with transitions and therefore requires significant communication of the change about to take place? Do we have an energetic child who needs to explore some of their built-up energy through climbing some stairs or jumping around before falling asleep? Does your child need to be provided with a lot of wind downtime, especially when there is a new routine in place? Sensitive kiddos will take a bit more time to wind down if their day has been filled with lots of excitement; whereas another child may fall asleep in the midst of it all. Knowing who your child is, including the temperament of your child, can be a game-changer when it comes to knowing what your child needs to fall asleep.
4. Setting the Biological Clock
Natural sunlight sends the message to our bodies it’s daytime, or it’s time to get ready for bedtime.
After four months of age, our children start to develop their own circadian rhythm. This is when they understand the difference between day and night. They start to produce melatonin and can distinguish that bedtime is different from nap time. How can we assist with this? Getting outside throughout the day and being exposed to Vitamin D and natural sunlight helps our bodies regulate to those natural elements that we have been familiar with. If you are having a difficult time with bedtime, be sure to allow as much time as possible outside during the day, which will help assist your child’s body into knowing it’s time to fall asleep at bedtime.
5. Timing is Everything
Trying to get our children to fall asleep when they aren’t tired will only make everyone feel frustrated.
Finally, if we are struggling with bedtime and it takes a lot of time for our children to fall asleep, we need to ask ourselves if we are putting them to sleep according to the clock reading a certain time, OR when they are actually tired? Have we established a solid bedtime routine and looked at all the ways that we can support our child into optimal sleep?
Our Realistic Expectations
If we are expecting them to fall asleep at a much earlier time than they are ready or capable of, this will most likely throw off our entire bedtime routine.
While it is true that our bodies release melatonin hormones in the evening hours to help prepare us for sleep, we need to be aware of our expectations around the amount of time we are wanting our child to sleep. For example, we would not place an unrealistic expectation for our child to sleep for 13 hours each night when their natural amount of nighttime sleep is closer to 10-11 hours.
When creating and establishing an effective bedtime routine, keep in mind that if you are not enjoying the routine yourself, your child may sense this discomfort and bedtime will be negatively affected. Creating fun, safe, and predictable routines keep it enjoyable for all.
Being away from the ones we love the most during the day can be challenging to manage. When our children spend time away from their primary attachment figures, this can set off alarms around bedtime. This does not mean that we should never have a break or invite others to participate, but rather provide an understanding of how our children are consistently seeking those attachment relationships.
Strong routines set the stage for strong assurance that all is as it should be, and allow the turbulence from the day to be settled through special moments and one on one connections. Bedtime won’t always be perfect, however through trial and error, the most important work is being done; a relationship is being formed, and that is the most important piece. Finally, your child will love their bedtime as much as you do. The work you do every day with your child will lay the foundations for healthy sleep habits