As you might already know, sleep problems in young children are one of the most common worries of parents.
Whether it’s resisting going to bed, having nighttime fears, or continually waking in the night, sleep can be a stressful time for both children and parents.
Most sleep experts agree that a consistent and calming bedtime routine is one of the keys to ensuring children sleep well.
In this article, you’ll find suggestions for creating a successful bedtime routine, based on you and your child’s personal preferences and practical needs.
Timing the bedtime routine
Researchers in New Zealand found that 30 minutes for younger children, and 30 to 60 minutes for older children, is the ideal length of time for a bedtime routine.
This 30 minute time is widely recommended, from major medical organizations to parenting books and websites.
Having a regular sleep schedule is also key to the routine working consistently. Of course, the exact timings will depend on factors like the child’s age and school hours.
But a good rule of thumb is to have a bedtime of between 7 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. for children up to 5. And no later than 9 p.m. for children of all ages.
Suggestions for a bedtime routine
It’s important to make the bedtime routine calming and consistent. Focus on quiet and relaxing activities, but also include practical things like bathing and teeth brushing.
There’s no magic routine though, and it’s up to you to decide what to include in the 30 minutes.
A good starting point is bath time, which you can tell them is coming 5 minutes before. That helps make the end of the beloved television or video game time a little easier.
And a good finish point is reading them a book, followed by a cuddle and goodnight kiss.
Here are some ideas to think about including, as few or as many of as you like:
- Bath. Try not to make it too splashy and crazy if they get overexcited.
- Drying and cuddle.
- Choose pajamas. This is a nice point to give them some control within the routine.
- One last toilet opportunity.
- A drink of milk or water.
- Some bedtime yoga or stretching if you enjoy it and find it calming.
- Teeth brushing.
- Apply lotion or give some gentle massage.
- Pick a book or two that they’d like to read with you that night. Again, it’s a good time to let them have some control and feel part of the routine.
- Read together. Agree in advance exactly how many stories there will be to help you resist the inevitable ‘just one more’ request.
- Talk about the day quietly. Tell them something they did in the day that made you happy. This helps them go to sleep feeling positive and loved.
- Sing a lullaby together.
- Say goodnight. Perhaps including other people, pets, and toys if they want to.
- Cuddle, tuck into bed and kiss goodnight to help them, and you, feel warm and happy before going to sleep.
Some extra tips for making the routine work
- Agree on a regular bedtime and wake up time for the whole family. Keep to it, even on the weekends.
- Talk with your partner or other key family members about the routine so they agree to do the same.
- When you have a plan, write and/or draw it and share it with your child. Create a picture chart to show them each part and the order of the routine.
- Deal with the ‘one last thing’ issue by making sure any likely requests are already in the routine.
- If you have two or more children, implement different bedtimes so everyone gets some attention, cuddles and their favorite story.
- As each step progresses, remind them that the next step is coming in one, two or five minutes.
- Older children can get involved by helping with bath time.
- Keep the bedroom and house lights dimmer during the routine. Switch off any televisions or computers in the rooms you’ll be in.
- Keep your voice soft, gentle and reassuring throughout the whole routine.
- If they are afraid of the dark, use a night light, or leave a hall light on. See below for more suggestions for dealing with fear of the dark.
- Don’t stay in the room until they fall asleep. Let them get used to soothing themselves. But do reassure them you’re not far away and all will be well.
What research says about bedtime and routine
Sleep hygiene (good sleep habits)
Researchers estimate that between 25% and 40% of children aged 1 to 5 will suffer from some form of sleep problem during their childhood. Some of these problems simply arise from picking up bad bedtime habits.
Where bedtime habits are concerned, scientists talk about ‘sleep hygiene.’ This refers to the behaviors, habits, activitie, and surroundings that your children experience before bed.
Good sleep hygiene techniques should help them get off to sleep, while bad sleep hygiene can lead to disruptive behavior at bedtime.
Bad habits include things like sugary snacks, caffeine, too much television, and stressful activities. Good habits include reading, bathing, relaxing and having a familiar routine.
Research shows how a stable routine helps toddlers
In 2016, researchers at the University of Virginia looked at the effects of a regular bedtime routine for toddlers, compared to those who didn’t have a routine.
Three interesting points came out in their study:
- A regular bedtime routine led to increased sleep for children aged 36 and 42 months.
- The best results were from children who had consistent parenting in both the daytime and bedtime routine.
- The three most common activities were to read a story, take a bath, and put on pajamas
Figure 1: Consistent bedtime routines and minutes of sleep at 36 months
The chart shows that if you’re consistent with your kid’s bedtime routine, they will sleep longer. A three year old can sleep an average of nine hours a night if you stick to your routine 60% of the time (roughly four nights during the week).
However, if you’re consistent and insist on the same routine every night of the week, you can add up to an extra hour to their nightly sleep time. That equals an extra seven hours’ sleep per week!
Research shows children with a bedtime routine wake up less often and for less time
Researchers in Philadelphia also found that a bedtime routine improves young children’s sleep in a range of ways.
In their experiment, 405 mothers who thought their young child had a sleep problem were split into two groups: no bedtime routine, or a simple three step routine.
The three steps were:
- A warm bath.
- Apply lotion to a toddler, or a short massage for infants.
- A quiet activity, such as cuddling or singing a lullaby.
A key part of this routine was that parents had to settle the child down to sleep, and turn the lights off within 30 minutes of finishing the bath.
The results were very positive:
- After 3 weeks, children who had a consistent bedtime routine fell asleep 21% faster than children who didn’t have a routine.
- Toddlers were much less likely to call out to their parents or get out of their crib/bed.
- Children woke up less often, and for less time, in the night.
- Mothers felt that their own mood improved (possibly due to getting more sleep too).
The chart below shows the differences between those who had a consistent routine compared to those who didn’t have one:
Figure 2: Time taken to fall asleep
This shows the benefits of developing a routine and sticking to it. It also shows that routines don’t need to be long and complex. Just 3 steps in 30 minutes worked well.
Making sure the bedroom conditions are right
Laying the groundwork for a successful sleep routine is important. The best laid plans can fail if you haven’t thought about their sleep environment – the all important bedroom.
The National Sleep Foundation suggests that a baby or toddler’s room should be dark and neither too warm or cold.
The ideal bedroom temperature range is between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 22 degrees Celsius). Don’t use night clothes or bedding that make them overheat, but don’t leave them shivering either.
Another key point is television. Researchers in 2009 found that children sleep better if they don’t have a television in their bedroom.
This could be because of the subconscious associations that children create in their minds. They associate their bedroom with entertainment and excitement, rather than calmness.
Similarly, it’s a good idea for older children to avoid doing homework or studying in their bedroom. That way, they don’t risk associating their bedroom with stressful activities.
Dealing with fear of the dark
Being afraid of the dark is a normal part of a child’s development. Even though it’s a passing phase for most children, it can be a distressing time for both them and their parents.
Researchers in 2007 found that bibliotherapy (using books to treat anxiety and overcome fears) can be an effective treatment for some children and adolescents.
So the right bedtime story can act as a form of therapy for anxious youngsters. Books help kids to imagine stressful situations and show them coping strategies.
Researchers show how books help with fear of the dark
In 2015, researchers tested bibliotherapy with nine children aged 5 to 7 who had nighttime fears.
Parents read ‘Uncle Lightfoot, Flip That Switch’ with their child each night for 4 weeks, and did the activities in the book.
They found very encouraging results after 4 weeks:
- Eight of the nine children had significantly less anxiety.
- Children reported less nighttime fears.
- Less incidents of children sleeping in their parent’s bed.
- Less separation anxiety for parents.
If you’d like to try this, here are some other popular children’s book that aim to help with fear of the dark:
- The Monster at the End of This Book
- Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?
- The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark
The most important part of a successful bedtime routine is consistency. The same routine, repeated at the same time, every night, can help children fall asleep more easily, and stay asleep for longer.
It might also be that consistent parenting during the daytime also plays an important role. Reading a book together is widely seen as a key activity, and an opportunity to help them tackle anxieties, such as fear of the dark.
What do you include in your bedtime routine? After reading this article, is there anything you might want to do differently? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.