Written By Jamie Labbe, MS
Owner/Founder of Oh Baby Consulting
Pediatric Sleep Consultant | @ohbabyconsulting
One of the easiest ways to establish a healthy sleep foundation from Day 1 is to create and maintain a bedtime routine. Infants and young children thrive on routine; in fact, they are comforted by predictability. A young mind is exposed to so much new information every day that it’s reassuring for a child to know that they can depend on certain events to have a predictable structure.
Routines also cue your child’s brain and body that sleep time is coming. Your child will start to recognize the order of the routine and begin to anticipate what comes next. With enough repetition, this process happens automatically in a very Pavlovian way. A calm and successive routine will also make the onset of sleep come more easily. Can you imagine if you walked out of your workout and immediately someone told you to lay down and fall asleep? This would be nearly impossible, and the same is true for our little ones. By allowing them some time to unwind, you are making the falling asleep process that much easier.
Bedtime routines are generally between 20-30 minutes long, including a final feeding (for babies under 12 months) and usually involve 4-5 steps. If you’re lost on what activities to include in a great bedtime routine, here are some recommendations to get you started.
I love including a bath as part of the bedtime routine. It is such a significant sensory experience for your baby that they will really start to associate bath time as the end of their “day” and the beginning of their “night.” There is also some evidence to suggest that baths can help induce the onset of sleep as it lowers our core body temperature. If this is not something you do every night, that’s absolutely fine. On non-bath nights, you can simulate a similar sensory experience with a quick washcloth wipe-down.
If your baby is under 12 months old, you will want to include a full feeding in your baby’s bedtime routine. This will help make sure their tummies are full and set them up for a nice long stretch of nighttime sleep.
Reading books is a wonderful way to connect and bond with your little one during the bedtime routine. If you have a newborn or very young baby, your reading time might only be 1-2 minutes of paging through a brightly colored or bold black-and-white board book. As your baby gets older, they will start to develop favorites and you can even involve them in the book-picking process.
One of the last steps of your bedtime routine should be dressing your baby for bed. If you have a newborn, using a swaddle (like the Ollie) takes them back to the days of the womb when they felt safe and snug. It also dampens the moro (or startle) reflex to help newborns achieve a deeper and more sound stage of sleep. As your baby gets older and transitions out of a swaddle, graduating to a sleep sack or wearable blanket will keep your baby warm and snug while also safely allowing them to roll. It will also keep their crib a safe sleep space as the AAP recommends absolutely no blankets or loose bedding.
After many weeks and months of a predictable and consistent bedtime routine, your little one will begin to anticipate that sleep is the last step of their bedtime routine. For newborns and very young babies, you may have to spend the last few minutes of your bedtime routine rocking or assisting them as they drift off to sleep. If you have an older baby whom you are teaching the skill of independent sleep, you will want to make sure they are staying awake through the whole bedtime routine so when you lay them down in the crib, they are able to initiate sleep on their own.
Once you implement a new bedtime routine, be consistent! The more you practice it, the more familiar it will become and the more prepared your little one will be for an easy & peaceful bedtime and a full night of restorative sleep.
Jamie Labbe, MS is a pediatric sleep consultant and owner of Oh Baby Consulting. She helps parents whose babies and toddlers are struggling with sleep find solutions that work for their family so that everyone can get the rest they need. Her goal is to take the stress & overwhelm out of the whole “sleep thing” and give families the confidence and clarity to navigate this piece of parenthood.