Bedtime routines offer comfortable predictability to the end of the day, which is important for getting quality sleep. It’s true if you’re an adult … and it’s especially true if you’re an infant.
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Research shows that a consistent bedtime routine can help your child sleep better with fewer and shorter late-night wakeups. An added bonus? Parents typically improve their moods in those situations, too.
So, what goes into making a baby bedtime routine that makes DreamLand a regular stop? For directions, let’s turn to pediatrician Heidi Szugye, DO, IBCLC.
Bedtime routines for babies
Babies enter this world on their own clock. They don’t really know the difference between 2 p.m. and 2 a.m., after all. That’s because they have yet to develop their circadian rhythm, the 24-hour internal clock that controls sleep-wake cycles.
So, just like you teach a baby to walk and talk, you can also help get their internal clock synched with the world around them. (Look to start sleep training when your baby is 4 to 6 months old.)
“Your goal should be to set up a nice and consistent bedtime routine that is calming and will help them wind down,” explains Dr. Szugye. “Follow the routine every night and your baby will begin to understand when it’s time to sleep.”
Try these six tips to set a sleepy tone:
1. Focus on feeding
Nobody sleeps well with a grumbling tummy. Feeding your baby about 15 minutes before they head to their crib can help make them a little drowsy, notes Dr. Szugye.
2. Bath time before bedtime
A soothing bath 90 minutes to an hour before bedtime helps trigger sleep. The reason? It all has to do with your baby’s core body temperature.
A warm bath stimulates blood circulation to your baby’s hands, feet and extremities. This thermoregulatory response leads to a cooling of your baby’s internal core — a pattern also associated with sleep.
(For the record, this isn’t just a baby thing, either. A warm bath or shower ahead of bed can help anyone snooze.)
3. Read a book aloud
The magic of a good story extends to sleep. Slowing down and reading a book to your baby begins the ramp-it-down process that leads to better sleep, says Dr. Szugye. (Consider the cuddle time while reading an added bonus.)
And here’s something that might help you sleep better, too: Hearing books read aloud will help your baby build language skills, among other benefits.
4. Sing a song
Lullabies date to ancient times, and there’s a reason why gentle, melodic verses like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” continue to be a bedtime staple: Calming music leads to ZZZs, notes Dr. Szugye.
In fact, these tunes are so effective that research shows that babies relax even when hearing lullabies sung in a foreign language.
5. Avoid screen time
Time in front of a TV or tablet screen won’t just occupy your child during the day. It may also keep them up at night.
Researchers found that 13-month-old infants lost a minute of nighttime sleep for every minute spent on a touchscreen device during the day. The sleep they did get was poorer, too, with more nighttime awakenings.
And 3-month-olds who watched TV for 34 minutes average 22 minutes less sleep over the course of a day. (Just five minutes on a touchscreen device costs that same baby 13 minutes of sleep.)
“Try to stay away from anything that might overstimulate your child right before bed,” advises Dr. Szugye.
6. Be consistent
Bedtime should offer structure to the end of the day. So, start your child’s routine at the same time every night. Go in the same order, too. (Maybe bath time, reading, quick snack and then a lullaby, for instance.)
And most of all, turn those lights off around the same time.
“Consistency really is the key,” explains Dr. Szugye. “Once you get a routine that works, stick with it. You don’t want to make drastic changes that could disrupt the routine or lead to new, bad habits.”
Stay strong, parents!
Will it be easy to maintain a routine? Heck, no. Very few things in parenthood fall in the “easy” category. There may be tears at bedtime. There may be trips out of the bedroom once your child is mobile and out of a crib. There may be sleep regressions.
“There are always challenges,” says Dr. Szugye, “but try your best to stick to the routine once you get it set.”
“Sleep is so important for growing babies,” stresses Dr. Szugye. “They’re developing so fast, whether it’s language, motor skills or just overall behavior — and adequate sleep helps with everything. So, the more you do to help them get their sleep, the better off they’ll be.”
To hear more from Dr. Szugye on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode “Babies and Bedtime.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast are available every Wednesday.