When we opened up voting on our Facebook page for our next big blog, we were a bit (pleasantly) surprised to see Pre Sleep Routines emerge as the winner! Pre Sleep Routines are a hugely important element of successful sleep improvements and training but we find in consults, it’s often a topic parents want to spend little time talking about. So, nicely done Facebook voters – you picked a great blog subject!
What is a Pre Sleep Routine and Why Do It?
In a nutshell, it’s a predictable series of steps with the purpose of (1) cuing your baby that it’s going to be time for sleep and (2) giving your baby some wind down time to transition into the soothing tools he’ll need to fall asleep (namely slowing breathing and body movements, and perhaps some other self soothing techniques like sucking thumb or pacifier, holding a lovey (older babies), etc). Pre Sleep Routines should be done before naps and before bedtime as well.
A recent study of over 10,000 children around-the-world found that children who have a regular bedtime routine have an earlier bedtime, fall asleep faster, and parents report that they sleep better compared with children who don’t have a routine (Mindell and Colleagues, 2015). Babies and toddlers do well with routines and predictability. Bedtime routines in particular will help your baby or toddler understand what you would like to have happen next… sleep! We aren’t suggesting you be inflexible or rigid each night or that you can’t have “off” nights from time to time, but as a general rule and ESPECIALLY if you are going to be starting some some sleep training, regularity and a predictable bedtime routine is key.
Age to Begin:
Start early! Around the onset of social smiling and reduction in nighttime BMs, comes an earlier drift in bedtime and a more predictable long stretch of sleep in the beginning of the night. This change often begins between the 7th and 9th week (from due date) and is the time to start your baby’s bedtime routine. As your baby’s bedtime drifts earlier and becomes more predictable during the first three months of life, you can use your pre sleep cues to help drive this change.
Naps at this young age are likely still too unpredictable for a regular pre sleep routine, so you’ll start with bedtime first and do the best you can with some pre sleep cues during the day. As each nap develops with more predictability (see our age by stage sleep expectations chart) you can add more structured pre sleep routines before each daytime sleep episode.
Evening Routine vs Bedtime Routine
People often mistake their evening routine for their bedtime routine and then get bogged down by its length. Predictability IS a good idea with babies and especially toddlers so having a general flow to your evening may be helpful. Maybe your child eats dinner, has a bath and some quiet play or activities before a last feeding, brushing teeth and songs or stories. We would consider the dinner, bath and quiet play to be your evening routine, rather than bedtime routine. Evening routines may vary a bit. If your baby has a diaper blow out or your toddler splashes in a mud puddle or gets filthy in the garden like our kids do, bath time might come early on any given night! During the evening routine you may Skype with a grandparent, have an impromptu visit from a neighbor, or a school activity for an older child. In other words – the evening routine, although regular, may vary a little night to night and that’s okay! The pre sleep routine, on the other hand, is more sacred. It usually lasts about 15 – 30 minutes at night, and 5-15 minutes during the day. We prefer you prioritize this time and ignore the doorbell, phone, etc as much as possible.
Elements of a Pre Sleep Routine:
Routines vary from family to family or even year to year as family’s grow and temperaments develop and change! Be flexible. Always be sure you’ve done a safety check before bed. Be sure an older child hasn’t dropped an unsafe item or toy into your baby’s crib or that blinds/cords/wires haven’t gotten near your child’s bed, for example. Be sure the sleep environment is ideal (cool, dark, quiet) and try to perform your bedtime routine in low lighting to facilitate the transition into relaxation and sleep. If under age 2 and especially if a light eater, be sure your child has had a feeding or snack close to bedtime (within the last 30 minutes) but, if you are beginning sleep training, feeding won’t be the very last thing you do with your baby. (For more info on night feeding expectations click here and for more info on feeding to sleep associations click here).
Pre Sleep Routines may include changing your child into some more comfortable clothes or putting on a swaddle, sleep suit or sleep sack if age appropriate. Simply closing shades and turning on a fan or sound machine are pre sleep cues as well. From there you may want to begin some reading, rocking, bouncing, swaying, pacing around the room, songs or lullabies, looking at photos of special family members, or saying goodnight to objects in the room. Pick a few simple things that feel comfortable to you and your baby and that you can repeat predictably each night. Caregivers may have different routines, but should be consistent individually. For example, one might sing a lullaby, while another bounces or reads. You may also have different daytime pre sleep routines vs night pre sleep routines and that’s okay too. Have a planned ending to your routine! It might be after you listen to two songs on a CD or Mp3 player, or maybe it’s after some special words or a prayer, or after you’ve read a certain book. Maybe you are able to place your baby into the crib and do some patting or soothing from the crib side. When the routine is over switch into nighttime mode. You are calm, quiet, and boring. The lights are off, and the room environment at this point will not change until morning wake up.
What happens next….
….is up to you! If you are content rocking, feeding, or soothing your baby fully to sleep and these parent lead sleep associations aren’t getting the best of you in the night at each sleep cycle wake up, then carry on! If you are experiencing sleep association wake ups that are more often than you can manage AND your baby is old enough, you’ll want to start some sleep training in a way that feels right to you. In this case, be sure your bedtime routine ends with your baby awake and still aware of his surroundings! This is important. Many parents rock their baby into a light sleep state (which can appear as wakefulness) and are mistakenly putting their baby down already asleep! As a general rule of thumb, if your baby is taking just a minute or two to fall asleep when you put him down, you probably put him down while already in light sleep.
As babies grow and mature, their developmental needs can change too. Be sure to look at our blog on bedtime battles to troubleshoot some common toddler problems and be sure part of your issues aren’t because of unreasonable expectations for sleep or the need for schedule changes. Preschoolers and toddlers also often benefit from multi sensory bedtime routines that involve combinations of senses such as hearing and touch (think: massage and affirmations on a CD, or tracing a message on his back while whispering a rhyme, counting body parts like fingers or toes while listening to music), rhyming and repetitive actions or the same story each night. If extra demands (water, potty, kisses, hugs) are getting the best of you try using a picture chart with double sided velcro. As your child accomplishes each task on the chart, he can take it down and physically see his accomplishments. Picture charts also take the pressure off parents as the ones who are making the rules and can help move you through your routine. GIve your child simple choices. A shelf full of books may be overwhelming, while basket of 4-5 familiar favorites is much easier. Do what you say you’ll do (if it’s 2 books, it’s 2 books) because it’s developmentally appropriate for your child to try poke holes in your resolve and to see how far he can push things. Despite that natural tendency to test limits, when all is said and done – your predictability is anxiety reducing!
Twins and Closely aged Siblings:
If you have more than one young child, twins, or other multiples to put to bed on your own your bedtime routine might not be quite as neatly packaged as your friends, and that’s okay! It’s often helpful to get the most labor-intensive part of the night out of the way by doing baths, pajamas, and tooth brushing with all children together. From there, especially if children have the same or very similar bedtimes and/or are sharing a room, some parents like to continue into the bedtime routine all together by reading on a large bed or on a floor, listening to a book on CD, or lying on a blanket cuddling or singing before placing each child into their crib or bed. Other parents find this too physically challenging or simply prefer to have 1:1 time. Sometimes a baby can play in eye-sight in an exersaucer or bouncy chair or blanket on the floor while the parent tucks in an older child or twin. Yes, your attention will still be divided and you may have some guilt about that. If you are alone most of the time at bedtimes, that feeling of guilt and being torn between two (or three or four!) children is common.
Older children may be able to be occupied with books or special, super interesting (but quiet) toys kept in a special container or box that only come out at bedtime. Of course there is always the screen time question. Many toddlers and preschoolers over the age of 2 are allowed to watch a small amount of age appropriate TV during the day. Based on current research, we prefer this screen time ENDS at least 30-60 minutes before bedtime. If your child is allowed some screen time, you might want to save it for the evening – especially if you are juggling more than 2 children!
Bedtime Routine trouble shooting, logistics, and beginning sleep training after a bedtime routine are topics we explore regularly in our personalized sleep consults! Please ask us a question on Facebook, invite your friends to join, and make an appointment if you need more in depth help on any of our blog topics!