We hear it from other parents all the time. How they dread the bedtime routine. How much of a battle it is and how long it takes. For my wife and me though, bedtime routine runs like clockwork. The whole process from start to finish is about 30 minutes. It honestly is not something we dread at all. When we were able to get the bedtime routine to run smoothly with our first son, we gave ourselves credit, but we also said that maybe we were just lucky how easy he was. But now that we’ve been able to do the same with our second son, I feel we must be be doing something right. So, here are some tips I want to share, which I hope you find valuable in helping you master your child’s bedtime routine.
When to Start
I highly recommend starting the bedtime routine you envision for your toddler and preschool age child as early as 1 year old (or even earlier). Of course, your child’s sleep patterns and development will change as she grows, but there is no reason the foundation for the bedtime routine can’t be set at a very early age.
The reality is that the older your child is when you attempt to establish a bedtime routine, the more difficult it will be. Setting the foundation for the bedtime routine early on leads to your child internalizing this as a normal everyday pattern. So, if you are reading this and your child is around 1 or younger, great! Start establishing your bedtime routine. If your child is older, it’s even more important to get the bedtime routine going, but just realize it may be more challenging.
I have to give my wife most of the credit for starting our two boys on their bedtime routines early on. While we were both very mindful of the need to establish a solid bedtime routine, she was more cognizant of doing this earlier than me.
Two Musts: Consistency and Procedures
I believe success with the bedtime routine mainly comes down to two must-dos. If you want it to run like clockwork, you need well-thought out procedures and absolute consistency with it. In essence, that’s what a routine is. A set of procedures performed consistently. This applies to naps too. Check out my post, A Dad’s Tips For Putting A Toddler Down For Naps, if you’re interested. Let’s examine consistency and procedures in more detail.
I’ll talk about consistency first because without it, it doesn’t matter how great your procedures are (although these of course go hand-in-hand). As a teacher, I see firsthand how children thrive on consistency. When establishing your bedtime routine, you must be very, very consistent with the details. Be strict about it. Do not allow yourself or your child to deviate. For example, if bedtime is 8:00, make sure you stick to it. As your child ages, the bedtime may shift a bit, but other than this, bedtime should not fluctuate regularly.
I learned early in my teaching career that a teacher is far better off being consistent with classroom rules and procedures, then easing up once students have mastered them. Starting off too lax, then trying to tighten the reins is asking for a headache. This adage applies to your child’s bedtime routine as well. Once your child knows what to expect and is used to the consistent bedtime routine, it’s a lot easier to deviate as special circumstances arise.
Make a point to be consistent even in different circumstances. For example, when we travel or stay at a relative’s, we keep the same procedures and the same bedtime. It reinforces the bedtime routine as a given, nonnegotiable part of every day. Plus, I believe it provides our boys with a sense of familiar comfort even in a different setting.
You need to be strategic and thorough when developing your procedures for bedtime. In other words, you can’t just have an outline. You should have step-by-step procedures for bedtime and leading up to bedtime. I’ll reiterate that last part…leading up to bedtime. You must realize that the bedtime routine starts before you actually bring your child to bed.
Have an Activity Leading Up to Bedtime
30-45 minutes before bedtime, we have our family play time where we usually play with toys. We may not always be actively playing with our boys, but we are generally all together. Our boys associate this time each night as the last activity before bedtime because we are consistent with it. Again, the procedures have to work in unison with being consistent. Whatever your activity is before bedtime, it’s a good idea to explicitly remind your child that bedtime is after this. For example, we may say, “Okay, it’s play time. Then it’s bedtime after.” When it’s 10 minutes before, we may say, “10 more minutes, then we go up for bed.” Once your child internalizes this routine, it may be less necessary to say these reminders daily, though there’s no harm in doing so.
Do keep in mind to avoid screen time as the activity leading up to bedtime. There is a lot of research showing a negative correlation between screen time before bed and quality sleep (and not just for toddlers). For toddlers, who are growing and developing the most, it’s extra important to avoid this. Here’s an article from The Baby Sleep Site if you wish to read more on this.
Have Activities your Child Enjoys as Part of the Bedtime Routine and as a Transition to the Bedtime Routine
Hopefully, your child is happily compliant with getting ready for bed. However, it’s certainly natural for a child to not want to go to bed. Maybe he’s having fun playing, or she sees it’s still light outside. One recommendation is to have an activity your child enjoys as you transition to bedtime and as part of your bedtime routine. Again, you don’t want this activity to involve screens. Also avoid something that gets your child riled up.
The activity may be something natural for a bedtime routine anyway. For example, my younger son loved baths, specifically bubble baths (and still does). So, when it was time to start the bedtime routine, we’d excitedly say, “It’s bath time with Mr. Bubble!” He would get very excited and start climbing up the stairs. Once he mastered the bedtime routine, it wasn’t uncommon for him to say, “Bath time” or “Bubble” after we’d been playing for a while and initiate the bedtime routine himself. If you’re wondering whether we gave him a bath as a daily procedure, yes, we did. We probably gave him a bath for two weeks straight when we were first establishing the bedtime routine. Once established, we were able to begin skipping days. Another logical activity is reading books, or more specifically, a favorite book as part of your bedtime routine.
The activity can also be something simple and quick. Here are two examples we’ve used. My son loves to close the bedroom doors, so when it’s bedtime, we’ll say, “It’s time to close the doors!” Another example is looking out the upstairs windows. Our bedrooms are upstairs, and my son enjoys looking down from those windows, so we’ll remind him we’re going upstairs to do that when it’s bedtime. The point is, find something your child gets excited about that you can include in your procedures as a transition to your bedtime routine.
Determine the Order of your Procedures and Keep it the Same
Remember, kids do well when they know what to expect. Determine an order for your procedures that makes sense. As I wrote earlier, you should know your bedtime procedures step-by-step. Below, I provided a summary of the steps for my 5 and 2 year old sons.
Note: their bedtimes are currently the same at 8:00. Our boys are in separate bedrooms, and my wife and I share the responsibilities for bedtime. I usually do the baths and teeth brushing while she gets the room ready for our younger son. My wife then puts our 2 year old to bed and I put our 5 year old to bed.
5 YEAR OLD
– He prepares the room (turns on sound machine, gets his stuffed animals where he wants them, turns on nightstand light)
– Bath or shower (bath is sometimes together with his brother)
– Brushes teeth
– Puts dirty clothes in laundry basket and puts on pajamas
– Hugs, kisses, and a high five for his brother
– Bedtime stories on his bed
– Lights out
2 YEAR OLD
– Bath (bath is sometimes together with his brother)
– Brushes teeth
– Changes into pajamas
– Hugs, kisses, and a high five for his brother
– Bedtime stories in the glider
– Rocking with and singing to him
– Lights out
Other Considerations for Bedtime Routine
Here are some other items to consider for your bedtime routine. These are all things we use or have used that I believe can be helpful for your child’s bedtime routine.
We’ve used a sound machine with both our sons since they were infants. Remember, newborns are used to it being loud from inside the womb, so I believe sound machines are especially helpful for younger children. I recommend not putting it too close to the bed / crib and not having it too loud. It should function just as background noise. In other words, just keep it to a simple sound machine and white noise. Don’t bother with fancy sounds or sound machines with lights. HoMedics has quality ones for as little as $20. We have one of these in each of our boy’s room.
To help your child fall asleep and stay asleep, I recommend blackout curtains. Plus, in the summer when it’s still light out at bedtime, it’s one less thing your child will automatically notice. We usually will close the curtains before our boys come up for bed so they are not noticing what it’s like outside to distract them from bed.
Alarm clock (when your child is older)
When our older son was 4, we decided to get him an alarm clock. Even though our bedtime routine with him was very smooth, we felt it was beneficial for him to see the time for bed. For example, when it was 7:55, we could remind him this was the last book since bedtime is in 5 minutes. We got him the littlehippo Mella alarm clock. We liked it since the little smiley face actually closes its eyes when it’s the bedtime you set. Honestly, I don’t know if this was necessary, but it is cute. Our son liked to look at it at 7:59 and watch its eyes shut. Or when sometimes it was 8:05, we could say, “It’s definitely time for bed. Look, he’s already sleeping.”
Of course, at the end of a long day, we’re often not at our most energetic. We may be grumpy or lacking patience. But, I truly believe having a good attitude and being energetic at bedtime makes a difference for your child. Do we do this 100% of the time? Of course not, but we do our best to be high-spirited the vast majority of the time so our boys see bedtime as a good thing. If they see it as something we dread, they will dread it too. If you need some motivation, just keep the end goal in mind. The effort you put in to do this gets your child to bed faster and easier. This means you can vege out and enjoy that glass of wine sooner :-). Because you deserve it.
Got Any Tips or Questions?
Do you have any great tips for your child’s bedtime routine you’d like to share? Or perhaps you have a question. I always love reading others’ thoughts. Feel free to comment below.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like 6 Teaching Practices That Make For Effective Parenting and A Dad’s Guide To Toddler Meals and Food.