Is there a parent alive who doesn't wish bedtime went a little more smoothly? One of the best ways to get kids to settle down and go to sleep is to create a regular bedtime routine, a ritual with Mom and Dad that lets young children know that bedtime is a happy and comforting way to end the day. Babies and young children are creatures of habit, and they enjoy the predictability of a ritual. Performing the same simple tasks before bed each night helps signal that everything is safe and sound, and that it's time to go to sleep. For more about your baby's sleep patterns and needs, click here.
Bedtime Do's and Don'ts
Sleep can be an emotional issue for the whole family. Children are often reluctant to separate from Mom and Dad at the end of the day. They're revved up, and they want to continue the fun. They may also have some fears about being alone in the dark or away from loved ones.
Meanwhile, sleep-deprived parents may be longing for a chance for some shut-eye themselves, or even just some quiet time with each other. On the other hand, parents who have spent a long day at work may crave more time with their children than bedtime allows. Often it's a mix of several feelings, making it a complicated time. Bedtime is hard for parents, too. Here's what you can do to develop bedtime rituals that make sense.
DO: Consider a ritual carefully. Not every bedtime routine will stand the test of time. Once something becomes established in your child's mind, she'll come to expect it — and do you really want to sing the entire soundtrack to "The Lion King" night after night? Choose your rituals carefully, or you may regret them. Some good, time-tested rituals to consider:
DO: Be consistent.Have a fairly firm bedtime and a predictable order of events. Toddlers will benefit from a reminder about half an hour ahead of time, then another about 10 minutes before bedtime. Springing bedtime on them suddenly will only make them more reluctant to give up their current activity. Make sure the ritual takes place in their own room or sleeping areas, too.
DO: Keep activity low-key. Don't overstimulate your child right before bed. For a baby, clear out the mounds of stuffed animals from the crib. Removing toys will signal that it's time to quiet down. For an older child, no roughhousing or watching TV before bed.
DON'T: Let the ritual become too elaborate. With a 10-month-old, your routine may last just a few minutes, whereas 15 to 30 minutes is the right length of time for a toddler or preschooler. More than 30 minutes is almost always too long.
DON'T: Leave the lights on. It's important for a child to learn to distinguish day from night — and that nighttime is for sleeping. If he does wake up and it's dark, he'll know that it's not time to get up yet. Leaving a bright light on is confusing.
DON'T: Put your baby to bed with a bottle.First, it's true that sucking helps soothe a baby to sleep, but swallowing milk or juice throughout the night bathes the teeth in decay-causing sugars. Second, drinking while lying down can lead to fluid buildup in the ears. And third, if your child is accustomed to falling asleep with a bottle in his mouth, he'll have trouble settling down when he awakens during the night and finds no bottle or an empty one.
DO: Be flexible. If your child is sick or going through a stressful time, it's perfectly okay to bend the bedtime rules a little. But don't dismantle the routine entirely. For instance, you might want to read one extra story, but not let her sack out in front of the TV.
DON'T: Rush into solid foods to help your baby sleep. Some parents are convinced that babies wake up so often because they're not satisfied with a liquid diet. But breast milk or formula is the ideal food for a baby's first four to six months. Solids don't really promote sleeping at night, so don't introduce them before your baby is 4 to 6 months old unless your health care provider recommends it.
DO: Give bedtime your full attention. Bedtime should be a special time for you and your child. Don't shortchange her by being preoccupied with something else. Focus on her alone as you snuggle, bathe, or read to her each night, and you'll both be the happier for it.
DON'T: Take away a bedtime ritual as punishment. Keep it sacred.
The Big Settle Down: Age-Based Tips for Sleeping Through the Night.
All of us, from newborns to adults, move between light sleep and deep sleep during the night. Anyone who boasts that her child sleeps straight through really means that when the child comes up into light sleep, he can get himself back down without crying or calling for a parent. How can you help your child reach that same milestone? Scroll down to your child's age to find out.
0 to 3 months A newborn's daily habits aren't fully established yet, so in the first weeks it's fine to let him doze off while you're nursing or rocking him. But by 8 to 10 weeks, he can begin learning to fall asleep on his own. Letting him fall asleep while feeding can establish a link between the two, making him more likely to cry for more when he wakes up later. If he starts to look sleepy during a feeding, ease him into his crib. Stay nearby as he nods off, but don't hold him or rock him to sleep. Babies this age need to feed around the clock, so don't expect an undisturbed night. When your baby wakes up at night, it's your job to teach him that it's not playtime but feeding time. Don't turn on the lights or carry on a conversation. Just feed him, change him if he's wet, and set him back in his bed. The less interesting you make nighttime awakenings, the sooner he'll catch on.
4 to 6 months By 4 months, a baby can sleep six to 12 hours straight through. Don't rush to pick her up as soon as she groans or whimpers; chances are she'll fall back asleep by herself. If she does wake up and wants a feeding, stall a bit to be sure she really needs it. If she's been fed and changed and is still crying for you, go in and let her know you're there, but resist picking her up. Pat her and speak softly. Let her discover her own style of settling herself back down into sleep.
7 to 12 months Even if your baby "slept through" before, she'll likely start making a fuss at night again due to her newfound thinking skills: She can now really miss you when she doesn't see you. A brief reassurance when she awakens will help her through this stage. If she is healthy, it's OK to let her get herself back to sleep on her own, even if it means she cries a little. Babies' sleep patterns are often disrupted while they're mastering a new skill. For example, if your baby is learning to pull herself up to a standing position, expect her to practice this in her crib at night too. If you've gone back to work and find your milk supply decreasing, a nighttime feeding can help you maintain a good level of milk supply. It's easiest to keep your baby in your room if this is the case, but make sure your spouse is amenable to this arrangement.
1 year to 18 months If your child is still waking up during the night, this strategy may help: Wake your toddler before he wakes you. Before you go to bed at, say, 11 p.m., wake him up to comfort and even feed him. Say to him, "Now you can manage for yourself when you wake up later." Then be sure you let him. Comfort him, but don't take him out of his crib. You may find that he doesn't wake later on. For some reason, rousing a child first often breaks the cycle of waking in the middle of the night. Be aware that if you've had your child sleeping with you all these months, it will be increasingly difficult to coax him back into his own bed. Babies this age are starting to have opinions of their own, as well as a growing inclination to voice them.
2 years This is the age when many children graduate from a crib to a bed, if they haven't already moved. Two-year-olds normally go through periods of nighttime insecurity and may make periodic trips to their parents' bedroom. You might put a mattress or sleeping bag near your bed and tell your child that she's welcome to come in and use her special bed, but not to wake you. Or you can lead her back to her own room. If you regularly give in to her pleas to sleep in your bed, she'll come to expect it every night. You have a choice, but you should be consistent so she learns the rules.