Sleep is everything, especially for kids.
Not to pressure on those parents, aka the organizers and enforcers of the sacred bedtime routine, but the routine you develop for your kids could also lay the foundation to restful sleep, well into their young adult lives.
“Sleep is a skill, not a trait,” says Dr. Chris Winter, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of “The Sleep Solution” and the forthcoming “The Rested Child”. Throughout his practice and research, Winter has found that sleep is a habit to be worked on, ideally starting early to allow for better sleep hygiene later on. “Developing good sleep habits and routine most certainly insulates for future sleep issues.”
Though there’s no one-size-fits-all sleep plan, there are general guidelines for getting your kid to bed and having them look forward to sleep.
From there, a bedtime routine should take into account each child’s behavior, temperament, and personality, as well as what works best for your family’s schedule. Keep in mind that, though the framework can be rigid, kids grow fast, which means adapting the times and specifics to their changing sleep needs and schedules.
Here, sleep doctors and coaches share the science and psychology behind the importance of bedtime routines, as well as their top tips for establishing a consistent bedtime routine to help set up children for sleep success.
Why Habits Matter for Bedtime Routines
Establishing a consistent routine — that is, a predictable set of steps in the same order each night — is key for ensuring a smooth bedtime for kids and their caregivers.
“Bedtime goes back to Pavlov — it’s a conditioned response,” says Lynelle Schneeberg, Psy.D., a pediatric sleep psychologist and author of “Become Your Child's Sleep Coach.” “When you have a routine that’s the same every night, the child starts to relax and get sleepy; those responses are reliably cued or triggered.”
To create a baseline routine, try incorporating the 4B’s of Bedtime: bathing (bath time or face wipe), brushing (brushing teeth), books (reading by soft light), and Bed (getting your child safely and comfortably tucked in).
Dr. Nilong Vyas, a pediatrician, sleep coach, and founder of Sleepless in Nola, agrees that consistency is key. “Consistency signals that it’s time for bed, so sleep hormones — melatonin — can activate,” she says.
11 Tips to Set a Great Bedtime Routine for Kids
Pick a bedtime based on kids’ wake-up time
Schneeberg, who specializes in working with children ages three to 10, says that parents will know if their child is getting enough sleep if they don’t have to wake them up.
“Figure out what rise time is required for their life and work backward from that number. If they need 10 hours of sleep and they’re not getting up until 8 a.m., pick a rise time to match a successful day at school, and that’s their bedtime.”
Start the bedtime routine before kids show signs that they’re tired
Once kids start showing signs that they’re tired, like yawning or rubbing their eyes, parents need to respond quickly. Although the time chart above can provide some guidance, each child will have their own unique signs and transition times.
“Some kids go from 0 to 60 from the time they show signs of being sleepy, and they move quickly to being overtired. Other kids show signs and can wait five or 10 minutes and show another sign,” Vyas says. If your child has a short transition period, start the bedtime routine before they show those sleepy cues, to prevent them from becoming overtired and wound up.
Limit screen time before bed
Sleep experts recommend avoiding things that inhibit or diminish melatonin, including the blue light emitted from devices such as TVs, iPads, and phones. “[Blue light] can trigger the retina and create wakefulness and make the sleepy-time hormone diminish,” Vyas says. “Even though they might be sleepy and seem chill, [blue light] is deceptively stimulating.” She recommends limiting screen time one hour before bed and 30 minutes before nap.
Bath time is great for younger kids…
A warm bath provides a relaxing, calming environment for little ones, and it’s also a natural segue into brushing teeth, applying lotion, and changing into pajamas.
There’s also a scientific reason that bath time is conducive to bedtime. “If you heat the body and then cool it, you tend to get sleepy. Everyone feels that after getting out of a hot tub,” says Schneeberg.
…But bath time can be stimulating for older kids
Vyas is a fan of baths for younger kids but once they reach toddler-age, bath time can be stimulating. “Bath time has become ‘here’s a million toys, let’s play and splash and have fun,’” she says. If bath time is part of a school-age child’s routine, Vyas recommends starting it earlier in the evening and allowing time to transition to the bedroom to change into pajamas and read books.
Prepare the lighting in your child’s bedroom
Schneeberg suggests having a nightlight or a bedside light that can easily be turned off by the child. Schneeberg also abides by the “2 a.m. rule,” meaning that the room looks the same at 2 a.m. as it does at bedtime.
For children who insist on having the light on, you still want to avoid light projectors that auto-shut off during the night. “It can be helpful to turn off the main overhead light and use a lamp or two. Then the bulbs in these lamps can be dimmed over time (perhaps with lower and lower wattage bulbs) until the lighting is appropriate for sleep,” Schneeberg says.
Read books before bed
Books are a natural anchor for the bedtime routine. “Books are wonderful end points because they end,” Schneeberg says. Pick a fixed number of books to avoid dragging the routine out and over-stimulating your child.
Vyas recommends three books, though parents can start with one book as early as the early infant stage. And you’ll want to use physical books instead of e-readers and screens, to avoid blue light.
For older children who can read independently before bed, Schneeberg suggests that they read until they are drowsy and then turn out their reading light themselves. If the child is staying up too late reading, Schneeberg recommends reevaluating what books the child reads.
Vyas has also found that setting a timer for around 15 to 20 minutes for older kids is helpful. A longer amount of time is okay too, but not at the expense of pushing bedtime later. Some kids may also prefer a drawing pad, brain teaser, or puzzle book instead, Schneeberg adds.
Create a bedtime basket
To help children learn to self-soothe and create autonomy in the bedtime routine, Schneeberg suggests creating a “bedtime basket.” This can include a book, toy, or drawing pad that your child can easily reach from their bedside table.
“You turn it over to where your child is looking at a book by soft light, then the child does the rest of work. You’re building that skill from an early age,” she says.
Don’t stay in your child’s room
While a parent’s presence can help a child fall asleep, it hinders their ability to learn to fall asleep independently.
“If parents are falling asleep in their child’s room or rubbing their back, when the child wakes up in the night and realizes the parent is no longer in the room, it creates a lot of anxiety,” Vyas says. “They will cry and wake up and look for the parent, and the parent will have to reproduce the behavior-action to get the child back to sleep.”
Clearly signal that the bedtime routine is over
To signal the end of the bedtime routine and establish that the parent is leaving, Vyas suggests incorporating a consistent phrase, such as, ‘” love you, good night, I’ll see you in the morning.”
To help parents develop a consistent set of cues, Vyas offers a bedtime checklist, which targets kids who tend to stall at bedtime. For example, when the child asks for one more sip of water, the parent can reassure them that that task has already been checked off the list.
Limit return visits at the end of the routine
Some kids may wait until the parents leave the room to start asking for things they need. To meet children where they are but maintain consistent boundaries, Schneeberg recommends creating a “bedtime tickets” system.
“Bedtime tickets can be post-it notes or index cards. Give them two for whatever they need, for example, one more hug from Daddy or having you look under their bed. After that, all you say is, ‘read or play till you’re sleepy, it’s bedtime.’”
A Bedtime Routine Is Good for Children’s Health
While studies on bedtime routines for children are limited, researchers who analyzed existing studies believe that optimal bedtime routines can make a difference in a child’s wellbeing. A bedtime routine lays the foundation for restful sleep, which supports children’s growth and development, helps them to regulate emotions, and enhances their ability to focus.
Winter sees bedtime routines as more important than ever, as schedules have been disrupted by the pandemic.
“With virtual school at home, no athletics, never leaving the house — it’s created tons of anxiety,” he says. “Sleep disorders in kids are the most under-recognized disorders. It might look like attention or mood disturbance, or a failure to thrive in school, when in fact, it’s not ADHD.”
The benefits of a bedtime routine in itself, though, also helps create a basis for normalcy, including a consistent sleep and wake time. “The brain likes to know when meals, exercise, social interaction, and sleep are coming. These are things that we can control about our circadian rhythms,” Winter says. This is important not only for the sleep itself, but to help regulate other body functions such as appetite, cognitive function, blood cell manufacturing, and cortisol release.
And how you teach or implement that routine will make a difference in whether the routine sticks with children as they age. The same researchers from the study cited above noted that positive (authoritative) parenting resulted in better bedtime routines than negative (authoritarian or permissive) parenting.
Creating Positivity Around Sleep Is the Most Beneficial Thing You Can Do
Winter says that a lot of issues around bedtime stem from parents’ own negative behaviors around sleep, which can create anxiety, stress, and fear and in turn, sleep performance anxiety for the child, a topic he explores extensively in his book “The Rested Child.” Using authoritarian reinforcement around bedtime may stir up a negative sleep identity in children, which can lead to sleep problems later in life.
“As a parent, we try to create positivity around sleep. Those attitudes start when you’re a kid,” Winter says. “When you start feeling negative about the situation, it creates more anxiety. The routine that we have before going to bed really helps people to, hopefully, start to wind down.”
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