By Kristen Carhart and Joanna Silverman at Early Parenting Partners, LLC
People inherently are creatures of habit and seek out repetition and routine. This is in part due to our nature and to our internal body clock called the circadian rhythm which thrives on routine and predictability. The circadian rhythm begins to develop in infants between three and four months, and is the main drive of sleep for all of us. If you are noticing your child is having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, the routine you have, or don’t have for that matter, may be playing a key role. Here are some ways to make your sleep routines conducive to healthy sleep.
Mind your P’s and cues: The cues you offer your child from a very early age matter when it comes to sleep. Incorporate consistent cues in your routine that indicate to your child “we’re getting ready for sleep”. Soothing activities like dimming the lights in your house at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime, a diaper change, getting into pajamas, nursing, bottle or cup of milk, stories or gentle songs, are all great ways to let your child know what’s coming next. Keep your routine relatively short. From start to finish an appropriate bedtime routine should range between fifteen and thirty minutes. Offer consistency by doing the same things each night in the same order and begin your routine within the same thirty minute window every evening. For example if your child’s bedtime is 7:30, be sure the time you finish your bedtime routine and put your child to bed is always somewhere between 7:15 and 7:45.
Timing is everything: Be sure your child’s body is ready for sleep when you are asking her to sleep. Note the time your child actually falls asleep at night and wakes up each morning. It is important to be familiar with your child’s individual rhythm. Laying her down for sleep well before she is actually able to fall asleep can create bedtime turmoil for infants and toddlers. If your child is falling asleep within 5-20 minutes of laying down, then you probably have your timing right. If your child is asleep before they are placed in their crib or bed or they are still awake after twenty minutes, those are signs you need to tweak the time your child is going to bed.
The right routine at the right time: A six month old, an eighteen month old, and a three year old all need a bedtime routine. However, age and stage of development should dictate what activities you implement and when. A young baby will rely on gentle activities such as a bath, massage, breast feeding or bottle, swaddle or sleep sack and perhaps a song or book. While a feeding is typically a necessary element in a baby’s routine, it works well if it takes place somewhere in the middle of the routine instead of happening last. The bedtime feeding should indeed be a feeding and not a parent led association that causes your child to fall asleep. Young toddlers are gaining independence and will begin to seek more control over what happens during the time leading up to bed. For example, hold your toddler up to turn their light switch off or make a bed for one of their stuffed animals and ask them to tuck-in their “baby” before you tuck them in. Toddlers and young children enjoy being active participants in their bedtime routines and can enjoy a little fun and whimsy, as long as it’s nothing that is over stimulating. Preschool and school age children will be ready for even more responsibility at bedtime, but will also be likely to test limits; consistency here is key! Let your child choose which books will be read, but set a limit of two to three books and stay consistent. It is typical for older children to use delay tactics at bedtime with extra requests for hugs, kisses, drinks or bathroom trips. Giving your child “one more tickets” can be a great tool for older children. The concept is that you give your child a tangible ticket at bedtime and they have the opportunity to utilize the tickets for one request, but when the tickets are gone, no more requests will be fulfilled. Again, consistency is the key to this system working. Also remember, your child will likely use each ticket every night, so limit it to one or two.
Routine rut: The right routine will be different for each family and a good bedtime routine should be calming and enjoyable for both you and your child. If you start to notice what you’ve been doing isn’t working well, then it’s time to make a change. Begin slowly by either adding or eliminating one element and expect it to take 3-4 nights of being consistent before your child learns the new routine. For example, if your child wants to read the exact same books each night and you’re bored to tears, let them choose one and you choose one. Carefully watch your child at bedtime. If your child appears over stimulated, bored, frustrated or distracted, it may be time to figure out what’s not working and switch things up.
Consistency: A bedtime routine that is appropriate for your family and is offered consistently will play a huge role in the success you have with getting your child to sleep each night. It is stress reducing for the entire family if everyone knows what the expectations are at bedtime. If you have a good routine in place and need to veer from it due to travel or illness, for example, your child will be able to quickly revert back with consistency. Be sure you are being consistent with the elements of the routine that work and not consistently doing things in the evening that hinder your bedtime success! If you are not sure where to begin with creating an appropriate routine or are experiencing other sleep challenges, we can offer individualized support with a sleep consultation.
Kristen relies on her many years of experience, as well as her education and background, to create individualized sleep or specified parenting support for every family she works with. She enjoys living in a small town north of Boston with her husband, son and daughter.
Joanna is an educator, holistic health counselor and mother of two young children. She has 15 years of teaching experience with children from infancy to 18 yrs of age, focusing the last 4 years consulting schools and young families.