After a busy day spent feeding your baby, changing nappies and generally being on mum duty, there are big advantages to getting your baby into a sound bedtime routine – and not just because you get to put your feet up, at last. Find out why a bedtime routine benefits your little one – as well as you!
A reliable bedtime routine teaches your baby that it’s time to sleep, and should eventually get him into the habit of dropping off without too much fuss.
So if you fancy giving it a go, follow our guide and who knows, you may just be able to enjoy a peaceful evening, from tonight!
Is a bedtime routine good for my child?
Keeping to a routine isn’t for every family, but it’s a useful way of ensuring that your baby is getting enough sleep.
Babies process all the new information they take in every day as they sleep, and it’s essential for their physical and psychological well being.
Experts also believe that starting a routine early can help set up good sleep habits for the future. Child psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin says:
‘Getting bedtime routines up and running from an early age is key to good bedtimes. They allow the child to learn their own body signals about tiredness and they will have a good idea of what to do about it.’
Establishing a bedtime routine won’t happen in the very early days, while your baby is still being fed on demand. However, from around three months, you can start to introduce a bedtime routine.
What time is bedtime?
Many mums notice a particular time in the early evening when their baby becomes cranky: he may start to yawn, rub his eyes and generally seem tired and irritable. These are indications that he’s sleepy.
Your aim is to start the bedtime routine before he becomes too tired, so he can enjoy a warm bath, stories and milk without getting fractious.
The time that you start getting your baby ready for bed will depend on lots of things, including when he naps and feeds and what time you’d (ideally) like him to wake in the morning – but around 6 / 6.30 pm is typical for sleep time.
Where should your baby fall asleep?
For the first six months, The Lullaby Trust advises that your baby sleeps in his own bed, in the same room as you, to minimize the risks of SIDS.
This might mean that you put him in a Moses basket downstairs, and carrying it up to your bedroom when you go to bed. Or, some parents use a travel cot as it is more mobile, or a crib-sized flat sleeping place.
The right environment for sleep
Getting your baby used to the difference between day and night could mean he sleeps better when it comes to bedtime.
During the day, keep the curtains open, give him lots of attention and stimulation, and don’t worry too much about keeping the noise down at nap time.
Then, at bedtime, keep the lights down low and keep noise to a minimum, using a soft and gentle voice.
Darkness helps to trigger sleep hormones, which can help your baby to nod off more easily, so if late evening or early morning light creeps into the room, fitting lined curtains or a blackout blind could help.
Remember to have a chair close to your baby’s bed for night-time feeds. A dim nightlight is also handy so you’re not stumbling around in the dark.
These sleep aids may help your your baby fall asleep.
Creating a good bedtime routine
‘The bedtime routine needs to be calm and consistent’, says Vicki Dawson, founder and CEO of The Children’s Sleep Charity.
If you give him a series of sleep ‘cues’ (signs that it’s time to sleep) – for example, a bath, feed and a cuddle – and repeat the process every evening, your baby will soon start to recognize that this routine means it’s bedtime.
A good bedtime routine might include:
1. Bath time
For many babies, a bedtime routine starts with a warm bath, but make it quiet and calm, rather than splashy and overstimulating.
A soothing massage could relax your baby after his bath.
Gently massage his arms and legs, using a gentle baby moisturizer or oil, warmed first in the palm of your hands. Use long, firm strokes and sing a little song.
You could also try these super-soothing massage buys.
3. A story
A bedtime story can help your baby settle, and helps nurture a love of books from an early age.
From about three months old, babies will appreciate hearing a simple story before bed.
Give your baby a last feed before he drops off, so he has a full tummy to see him through the night (or as much of it as possible!).
Try to leave a little time between his feed and putting him to bed, for example by singing a song or giving him a goodnight cuddle.
If you feed him to sleep, milk and sleep could become linked in his mind, and he might come to rely on being fed back to sleep every time he wakes in the night, even if he’s not actually hungry.
Leaving your baby to go to sleep
When you leave your baby, use a specific ‘cue’ that shows him it’s time to sleep: like using a set phrase like, ‘Night night, I love you.’
Beware of creating bad sleep associations, such as feeding or rocking your baby to sleep. If he’ll only fall asleep in your arms at bedtime, he’ll demand the same attention every time he’s going to sleep.
This means that every time he wakes in the night, he’ll need you to settle him back to sleep again, so aim to put him in his bed awake, say goodnight, and leave the room.
Do this from the beginning, and it’ll be the norm for him to settle without physical contact.
Problems with establishing a routine
Unless you get very lucky indeed, chances are you’re not going to establish a bedtime routine for your baby overnight.
Don’t worry: there are strategies that can help you cope.
This sleep-training technique involves leaving your baby to cry for a very short time before going in and reassuring him you’re there, but without picking him up.
Slowly increase the intervals between checking on your baby until he settles.
This shouldn’t be done before six months, but many babies learn to sleep through within a few nights.
This helps your baby or child get used to going to sleep on his own by gradually withdrawing over several nights or weeks.
You start by sitting on a chair next to his bed and, night by night, slowly moving further and further away until he’s falling asleep without you in the room.
It’s a gentle but time-consuming way of getting your child to sleep independently.
Waking for a feed
Although young babies will still wake for milk, between six and 12 months, your baby may be ready to sleep through the night without a feed.
Fear of the dark
Many children, as they start to get older, feel afraid of the dark.
Psychologists think this might be because the mother switches off the light as she leaves the bedroom, so darkness becomes associated with feelings of being abandoned.
To prevent this, you might switch the light off before it’s time for you to leave the room, or potter about in the room tidying things away so that the dark becomes a friendlier place.
Many sleep problems can be avoided by creating positive associations with sleep.
When the bedtime routine changes
Invariably, just when you think you’ve got it sussed, something will happen to disrupt whatever positive sleep habits your baby has adopted, such as:
- a change of environment
- clocks changing
- separation anxiety
At times like these, you may simply have to accept that your baby’s routine has been blown out of the water and take steps (once things have settled down again) to re-establish it.
The good news is that if you’ve had a solid routine before, chances are you’ll quickly get back on track.
Are there any disadvantages to bedtime routines?
Some parents find routines inflexible, and believe they don’t suit their family life.
You’ll know if a routine feels right for you.
The main drawback is that the repetitive nature of a bedtime routine can become tedious, but keep reminding yourself that once you’ve tucked your baby up, you can creep downstairs and tune into your favorite TV program in peace.