Bed and nap routines are a predictable series of steps that help cue your baby that it's time for sleep while providing them with some wind-down time to transition into a state of relaxation. Pre-sleep routines should be done before naps and bedtime to help establish a regular cue before transitioning to sleep. Your pre-sleep routines will start as very short activities that you do before sleep in the newborn phase, that evolve into a longer series of steps as your baby grows and has a more predictable sleep schedule. This blog will take you through what you need to know to build the best possible bed and nap routines for your baby.
Pre-sleep routines are very important for predictable sleep, especially for babies. Studies have shown that establishing a regular bedtime routine can help babies fall asleep faster and wake up less within just three nights (without sleep training!). Similarly, a study of over 10,000 children worldwide found that children who have a regular bedtime routine have an earlier bedtime, fall asleep faster, and sleep better compared to those who don't have a routine. The activities that parents choose to incorporate into their sleep routines also matter. One study found that incorporating baby massage into an infant's routine improved subsequent sleep, while another found that incorporating a bath helped babies fall asleep faster (likely because when our core body temperatures drop we feel sleepy). The benefits extend to parents too, establishing a bedtime routine has been shown to improve maternal mood within just a few weeks. With benefits like that, it's important to put a little thought into your routine to make sure it's a good fit for you and for your baby.
How long should your pre-sleep routine last?
During the newborn phase, you might just sing a single song before your baby falls asleep. This might only last 1-2 minutes.
By the time your baby is 7-8 weeks old, you should establish a bedtime routine with activities lasting 10-30 minutes and a nap routine lasting 5-15 minutes.
At what age should you establish bed and nap routines?
You can begin pre-sleep routines as soon as you come home from the hospital! The earlier you begin, the more your baby will associate your actions with sleep. Your routine in the first six to seven weeks might be very simple. For example, you might just sing the same song, shush, hum, or repeat a phrase while you swaddle your baby and/or as your baby falls asleep. It's a good idea to establish a sleep cue even if your baby is napping in your arms or in a carrier. If you develop strong sleep cues at this age, you'll be able to use those cues to help your baby sleep in new locations and situations as s/he grows. For more best practices related to sleep at this age, check out this blog.
Over time, you can build on your routine by adding additional steps. At around seven weeks of age your baby should begin to have a more consolidated night of sleep and a more regular bedtime (although bedtime might be very late, see our blog on what to expect during this time here). This is when you can begin to do a true bedtime routine that is distinct from your nap routine. For example, you might feed your baby, then change your baby's diaper, do a baby massage, put your baby into pajamas and a swaddle, rock while singing the song you established, and then put your baby into the crib (try to put your baby down awake, but if this doesn't work, it's ok to rock/feed to sleep, it's just about giving your baby the chance to go into the crib awake at this point).
As each nap develops with more predictability, you can gradually add a structured pre-sleep routine before each daytime sleep episode. Your nap routine doesn't need to be as involved as your bedtime routine. Choose a few elements from your bedtime routine to build a nap routine. If your baby is reacting negatively to your bed or nap routine, then check out this blog to troubleshoot.
What activities are best for your bed and nap routine?
Determine the activities that you need to do with activities that are enjoyable and help your baby relax. Once your baby is about seven weeks old, incorporate all of the need-to-do activities from the list below and select your favorite nice-to-do activities to build your baby's routine for nights and naps.
Need-to-do activities (do all of these):
Wash up (bath or wipe down)
Ensure your baby has a clean diaper
Changing your child into pajamas or comfortable clothes (note that you don't necessarily have to change your baby's clothing for naps, but remove any clothing with buttons or decorations that could be choking hazards or uncomfortable)
Close the shades (see our blog on why here)
Turn on a fan or sound machine to create a quiet environment, especially for naps (review this blog to understand why)
Ensure your baby is satiated
Most babies will need a good feeding before bed
You do not need to feed your baby before every nap, but ensure that your baby has eaten recently enough that s/he won't be hungry during the nap (more on naps here)
Nice-to-do activities (pick a few of these):
Walking around the room to say goodnight to objects in the room
Saying goodnight to pictures of relatives
Talking about what happened during the day or what's going to happen the next day
Kisses for feet, hands, tummy, and cheeks
Reading a book
Verbal consoling, such as singing a lullaby, shushing, or repeating the same good-night phrase
Physical consoling, such as bouncing, swaying, patting, and rocking
The key is to pick a few activities that you and your baby find comfortable and repeat them predictably each night. The best routine is one that you enjoy doing because a great routine will continue through your child's pre-school years and maybe even beyond! Caregivers may have different routines, but they should be consistent individually. For example, one caregiver might sing a lullaby, while another bounces or reads and that's fine.
Your routine can be in any order that works for you. If you feed your baby to sleep, then we recommend that you work on shifting feeding to earlier in the routine so that your baby can have some practice falling asleep independently. Babies who fall asleep on their own in the crib tend to sleep better than those who fall asleep in arms or while eating. That said, if your routine is working well for you and your baby is sleeping well overnight and for naps, then you don't need to be in a hurry to change things.
We hope this blog helped you establish a bedtime routine for your baby. If you're new to us, welcome! We're moms with backgrounds in sleep medicine, public health, nursing, and behavior analysis (Ph.D. and master's level). Our passion is translating the scientific literature into actionable strategies that you can use to achieve better sleep.
As always, we are here to help. Let us know if you don't see a blog on an issue that you are facing by contacting us on social media or through firstname.lastname@example.org (note that while our goal is to help, we can't keep up with personal questions via e-mail. It takes away from our time with our own little ones). If you are struggling, then feel free to book a one-on-one consultation with us or check out our sleep class. We developed the class based on our work with parents and offer many different approaches to sleep problems. We have lots of positive feedback on the class and you can join our private Facebook group for extra support while taking the class.
Mindell, J.A. and Williamson, A.A., 2018. Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond. Sleep medicine reviews, 40, pp.93-108.
Mindell, J.A., Li, A.M., Sadeh, A., Kwon, R. and Goh, D.Y., 2015. Bedtime routines for young children: a dose-dependent association with sleep outcomes. Sleep, 38(5), pp.717-722.
Mindell, J.A., Leichman, E.S., Lee, C., Williamson, A.A. and Walters, R.M., 2017. Implementation of a nightly bedtime routine: How quickly do things improve?. Infant Behavior and Development, 49, pp.220-227.
Mindell, J.A., Telofski, L.S., Wiegand, B. and Kurtz, E.S., 2009. A nightly bedtime routine: impact on sleep in young children and maternal mood. Sleep, 32(5), pp.599-606.
Mindell, J.A., Lee, C.I., Leichman, E.S. and Rotella, K.N., 2018. Massage-based bedtime routine: impact on sleep and mood in infants and mothers. Sleep medicine, 41, pp.51-57.