Do you love bedtime with your little one? Or do you dread it?
Bedtime has a way of becoming one of the most difficult parts of the day for parents with little ones, but it really does not need to be this way!
Part of our mission is to help as many parents as possible to feel empowered when it comes to infant and toddler sleep which is why today we are going to take you through some important things to consider when building your own bedtime routine.
We want you to be able to build a routine that you enjoy, a routine that you cherish, a routine that works for your family!
So where do you start?
First things first, as is true for many aspects of infant and toddler sleep, one of the best things you can do, is let go of all the pressure and expectations. Let it all go so we can start fresh and find what works for you. Let’s ditch the stress around bedtime before we get started because as we know - if we’re stressed about bedtime, so are our babies!
Next, we are going to walk you through some important considerations for when you are crafting your bedtime routine for your family.
First up, let’s chat about the timing of bedtime. There are two aspects of timing we need to cover. One is the timing of your steps in the routine and the other has to do with sleep pressure.
When it comes to routine it doesn’t need to be down to the minute. It is okay to generally start your routine around 7pm for example and then go with the flow and following your child’s cues. It will only cause more stress if you’re following a strict time schedule of bath at 6:55, teeth brushed at 7:02, PJs at 7:05, books at 7:07… you get the idea. We promise, bedtime routine will be more enjoyable for everyone if you just use time as a guide and let the sequence of bedtime flow as naturally as possible! While it is important to have a routine with a sense of predictability to take the guesswork out of bedtime, it is also okay to let things vary a bit day-to-day!
Sleep pressure is another very important factor to be aware of. When it comes to bedtime we want there to be enough sleep pressure built up that your little one is tired and ready to sleep, but we also want to make sure that your little one has not built up too much sleep pressure.
If not enough sleep pressure has built up your little one will simply just not be tired enough for bedtime yet. They may happily flow through their bedtime routine with you but then start to fight you a bit when it is time to actually sleep. If you notice that you are trying for a really long time to get your little one to transition from awake to asleep, it may be that they have not built up enough sleep pressure and they are not yet tired enough! If you find that no matter what time you start bedtime they are always falling asleep at a certain time, take their cues here! So if you start bedtime at 7 or 7:30 and they are ALWAYS falling asleep after 8pm no matter what you do - maybe it isn’t your bedtime routine that is the problem, but just the timing of when things are happening! All you may need to do is shift things back a bit to line up with their sleep needs.
Now let’s chat about the opposite side of this. If your baby has too much sleep pressure built up by the time bedtime routine starts, they might either be very fussy making it hard to enjoy this time together, or if they are reallyyyyy overtired they may even catch a second wind and start to seem “wired” or “bouncing off the walls”, so be sure to keep an eye out for this as well! Oftentimes adjusting wake windows can be helpful! Maybe bedtime needs to be pushed up, or pulled back a bit!
2. Emotions & Limits
We’re talking about emotions for everyone here - both yours and your child(ren)’s! We know our children co-regulate with us, so we need to be sure we are keeping our own emotions about bedtime in check while also supporting our children’s emotions that might arise around bedtime.
If what you are doing isn’t working for you, don’t force it! The last thing we want to happen is that we create a negative emotional association with bedtime and sleep.
If bedtime is stressing you out - take a step back and reflect on why. What about it are you not enjoying? Maybe you need to set some limits. If your child loves to read but you don’t have it in you to read 10 books that’s okay! Set a firm and kind boundary that sure you’d love to read to them - but they can pick TWO books. (Ps. if there are books you can’t stand to read, we aren’t here to judge - just make sure they are not in the bedtime routine space - set yourself up for success!). Similarly, if bathtime is chaotic and maybe a bit too much for you, move to a different time! There are no rules around it being a part of bedtime.
If you find bedtime triggering, take the time to figure out why. Dig into that feeling, understand it, reflect on it and make changes so you can do what works for you and that you can head into bedtime feeling empowered as a confident leader! It is okay to set limits around bedtime routine so that you don’t hit your limit, so that you can stay grounded and present.
Now, let’s touch on the emotions of your little one. If you are getting lots of big tears at bedtime, it is really important to support that emotion. Acknowledge and validate how they are feeling. They may need to work through a limit you have set, but often emotions we are seeing from our little ones about bedtime are actually about connection, which brings us to our next point.
Bedtime brings with it one of the biggest separations our children face. Separation is hard for our little ones, so instead of forcing them into separation and rushing through bedtime to just be done with it, let’s think about what you can do to help them bridge the separation until your next point of connection.
When it comes to wee little ones who are under one year of age, attaching through the senses is key. They attach to us through taste, smell, touch, auditory and sight senses. So how can we bring that into bedtime? Lots of snuggles, singing them songs, maybe a rhythmic bum pat or a gentle stroking of their hair, nursing for taste, skin to skin or anything that makes them feel close and connected to you.
Lots of intentional connection at bedtime can be VERY helpful regardless of age. As our babies grow and develop there are other things we can do to help bridge the separation. Maybe you have pictures of you that they can see from their sleep space. You can chat about what you will do together in the morning. We love ideas such as a secret handshake just the two of you have and maybe a stuffy that is in the shape of a big heart (the idea here is you are giving them your heart to snuggle with all night!).
You can foster connection at bedtime in SO many ways with your little one - the take home here is that it is INTENTIONAL. Put away the distractions and pour into your little one during this time so that they can move towards taking their attachment needs for granted!
4. Sensory & Temperament
Next, let’s talk a bit about sensory needs and temperament. Sensory processing can be so important in helping your child find the calm they need at bedtime.
If you were to look up a typical bedtime routine you might find “bath, teeth, pjs, books, bed”. There is not a single thing wrong with that, BUT if your little one needs lots of gross motor input in a day, you might find rough and tumble play can be a great thing for your family to incorporate into bedtime. If you’re asking Sarah about bedtime, she can recall calmly rocking one babe to sleep humming sweetly and rubbing his back gently while the other simultaneously ran across the room to do a somersault onto a floor bed because that is just what they both needed to settle into sleep easily shortly after.
For your family it might include a tickle fight or some sort of silly game involving physical movement. We’ve heard from some families that the only thing that helped them to remove a false start right after bedtime was to have baby jumping in their jolly jumper between bath and bottle. Every baby will have unique sensory needs so do not be afraid to experiment! Maybe they enjoy deep pressure instead of a gentle touch even.
Meet your babe where they are at - embrace it and don’t overthink it. It is important that you determine that is going to be stimulating for your child and what is going to help them unwind. It may not be what you imagined your bedtime routine might look like, but if it helps to calm your child’s body then don’t fight it.
Finally, make it your own! Your bedtime should be something you enjoy so don’t hesitate to make changes in order for this to be true. Maybe you have a routine that was working but it feels like it might be time to change it up, this is a great chance to trust your instincts and follow your baby’s cues. It is also okay to have a routine that involves only one parent, or multiple caregivers. Maybe you alternate each night, or even tag someone in for the first or second half.
When it comes to sleep associations you are using to help your little one transition from awake to asleep, remember that there is no such thing as a negative sleep association unless it stops working for you. It is also a great idea to create a menu of sleep associations so that depending on the day you have a few options to help you support your child to sleep.
Take the time to tune into all the aspects of bedtime we mentioned above and apply it your child, to your family.
To build your own bedtime routine, a routine that you can enjoy and cherish, find your rhythm while focusing on connection. Take into account emotions, and sensory needs while never being afraid to make it your own. Trust your instincts and follow your child’s cues to make it exactly what your family needs to end the day in a way that makes your heart happy!