Child Bedtime Routines Dos and Don'ts

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Whether you have an infant, toddler, kindergartner, or preteen, practical discipline strategies and a good bedtime routine can be the difference between good sleep habits and a lot of sleepless nights. There are dozens of books about kids and sleep problems, from Dr. Ferber's "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems" to Elizabeth Pantley's "No-Cry Sleep Solution."

Even though they all use different methods, most of these parenting experts advise that a good bedtime routine is key to a good night's sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in its book "Guide to Your Child's Sleep," says that "it's almost impossible to overstress the importance of a calm, orderly bedtime routine."

Setting a Bedtime Routine

A bedtime routine includes all of the things that you do with your baby or child just before you put them to bed, such as taking a bath, the last diaper change, putting on pajamas, and reading a bedtime story.

The goal of a good bedtime routine is for your child to fall asleep on their own, without being rocked, watching TV, or having you lying down next to them. This way, if they do wake up later, they should be able to fall back asleep without needing any extra help.

If your child associates falling asleep with being rocked, for example, if they wake up in the middle of the night, they likely won't be able to go back to sleep unless you rock them.

Bedtime Routine Dos and Don'ts

There is no single right way to set up a bedtime routine. Some kids like to hear a bedtime story, others may want to talk about their day, and some may just want to say their prayers and go to sleep. As long as your child falls asleep easily and sleeps all night, then your bedtime routine is likely working well.

Bedtime Dos

When developing a bedtime routine, it's important to:

  • Be consistent. Your bedtime routine may change over time, as your child gets older, but it should be fairly consistent from day to day, starting at the same time and going in the same order. For example, a toddler's bedtime routine might start at 6:30 p.m. and include a bath, putting on pajamas, reading a few bedtime stories, getting in bed, and a final goodnight.
  • Include dental hygiene. Whether you are cleaning your baby's gums or reminding your older child to brush and floss, proper dental hygiene is a good habit to include in your child's bedtime routine each night.
  • Keep it fairly short. A good bedtime routine will probably last about 10 to 15 minutes, or a little longer if you include a bath.
  • Make it age-appropriate. Your child's bedtime routine will change over time. For example, while it is expected for a newborn or younger infant to fall asleep nursing or drinking a bottle of formula, you can try and start putting your baby down while they are drowsy but still awake once they are four or five months old.
  • Offer some choices. Your child can't choose when to go to bed or how long the routine is, but you can let them have some control of their bedtime routine by letting them choose between two pairs of pajamas and select which books to read, for example.
  • Remind kids to use the bathroom. This is especially important for younger kids who still have issues with bedwetting.
  • Start early. It is much easier to begin a good bedtime routine when your baby is young than to try and change poor sleep routines when you have a toddler or preschooler who still isn't sleeping well.
  • Understand that a little crying can be okay. Some kids will cry for a few minutes as they settle down for sleep or when they wake up in the middle of the night. This can be okay if they quickly settle down and you are comfortable letting them cry for a few minutes. Keep in mind that even the Ferber Method doesn't advocate simply letting kids cry all night.
  • Make the room dark, but not too dark. Blackout shades can be helpful for getting your child's bedroom dark enough to promote sleep (especially in the summer when it is still daylight at bedtime). Blackout shades may also help your child sleep a little longer in the morning. But since few kids like to sleep in the dark, a dim night light is useful. Just make sure it is not too bright.
  • Use a security object. A security object, like a stuffed animal or blanket, can be an important part of a good bedtime routine, but only for children one year old and older. These types of items aren't safe for babies to sleep with.

Bedtime Don'ts

Just like there are a lot of right ways to have a good bedtime routine, there are some wrong ways and things you should avoid.

  • Allow stimulating activities before bed. Especially if your child has trouble falling asleep, you should usually stop stimulating activities, such as playing video games or watching TV, 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
  • Assume that your child will outgrow poor sleep habits. Unfortunately, if nothing is done, many children who have sleep problems as infants and toddlers continue to sleep poorly even once they start school. The sooner you fix your child's poor sleep habits, including starting a good bedtime routine, the better.
  • Create poor sleep associations. Rubbing your child's back until they fall asleep, having music playing, or keeping the TV on can mean your child will need help if they later wake up. And no, simply keeping the TV or music on all night doesn't work. If your child wakes up, they will still cry out for you and need your help to go back to sleep.
  • Drag it out. Set boundaries and be consistent. If you are not careful, your child will drag out your bedtime routine with repeated calls for drinks, snacks, or to use the bathroom. Try to stick to your original bedtime.
  • Give caffeine before bed. Keep in mind that in addition to soda and tea, caffeine can be a hidden ingredient in other foods, such as coffee-flavored ice cream and chocolate.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.