Helping young kids get a healthy night's sleep is both an art and a science. On the “science" side of the sleep equation, there are all sorts of relevant considerations, from pacifiers and safe sleep recommendations to common sleep patterns and problems, that can leave parents and children weary.
And then there's the “art" of achieving sleep success, which is at least as important for ensuring that everyone gets their Z's. For any parents out there who want better sleep for their family, the “art" part typically involves figuring out what works best for your child and their behavior, temperament, and personality.
To create an effective bedtime routine, start out by adopting the attitude that falling asleep independently and routinely getting a good night's sleep is, in fact, something children must learn. Like breast-feeding, sleep is one of those activities that are “natural" but do not always come naturally. As you commit yourself to helping teach your child this important skill, here's a simple yet effective strategy for sleep success.
The following healthy bedtime routine involves what I have long referred to as the “4 B's" of bedtime. These sleep habits can be easily implemented in the order listed below and introduced as early as you like. In fact, the earlier they're introduced, the better. Challenging bedtime behaviors can start early and be hard to break, so it's best to avoid introducing less-than-ideal habits such as bedtime bargaining or sweet treats in exchange for sweet dreams. Instead, commit to employing the 4 B's.
Bath time is a good official start to the bedtime routine. Bedtime baths are both soothing and hygienic, and help to establish a regular routine by providing an obvious stopping point for daytime activites and a clear cue that bedtime is soon to follow. A bath after the last breastfeeding or bottle of the day can be particularly helpful for infants who are becoming reliant on suckling themselves to sleep. After all, it's next to impossible to sleep through the process of being undressed and bathed. Fortunately, this is a routine that can easily be repeated on a nightly basis. While kids do not need to take baths every night, most kids actually enjoy them, and they are a great way to start winding down for bedtime.
Of course, we know the importance of teaching your child to brush their teeth at bedtime. There's another benefit, besides dental hygiene: The routine of brushing is definitely one of the easiest habits to introduce early – even before teeth actually appear – since babies and toddlers love to put things in their mouths. To get your children used to the concept of brushing their teeth, it can be helpful to read books about the subject with them. As for whether bathing or brushing comes first, that really doesn't matter so long as they both come after the last “meal" of the day.
As a champion of the benefits of early literacy, I can think of no better sleep routine than one that involves reading books at bedtime. After all, the benefits of reading – even to very young babies – are clear. Additionally, doing so each night makes for an inexpensive, enjoyable, and easily repeated routine. As an added bonus, it's also a routine that tends to naturally make children drowsy and can easily be taken on the road to help your kids to fall asleep in unfamiliar settings.
The fourth and final “B" simply involves getting your children safely and comfortably tucked into bed. There are many acceptable variations, depending on your child's age, personality, and sleep needs. For children under a year, this definitely needs to include a safe crib or bassinet and involve no actual “tucking," since wearable blankets are recommended in lieu of loose ones for safety. For toddlers and older kids, other various sleep considerations apply – from timing to type of bed and mattress.
Of course, this routine is not concrete and can be adjusted to best suit your family's particular bedtime needs and preferences. But on the whole, your overarching goal with respect to the 4 B's should remain the same: to create a quiet, safe sleep environment where you can help your child master the art and science of getting a good night's sleep.