How do you set up a bedtime routine for a baby and at what age should you start?
A bedtime routine can be an important step in helping any infant or child, or adult for that matter, fall asleep easier. The purpose of the bedtime routine is to help the body relax and realize it is time for sleep.
It is never too early, or too late, to begin a bedtime routine. Newborn sleep patterns are not as predictable, but by about 2 months of age, the time an infant goes to sleep is often more consistent from night to night so it is easier to know what time to start the bedtime routine.
It is also best to have the bedtime routine established by about 4 months of age. At 4 months, infants begin to develop the skill of self-soothing. This means, if they wake up during the night, they can hopefully put themselves back to sleep without parental help.
To help your infant develop this skill, beginning between 2 and 4 months, it is best to put your infant to bed drowsy, but not sound asleep so they have to put themselves to sleep. The bedtime routine helps them to get to this state of drowsiness.
The bedtime routine is going to vary from family to family. Some common elements are a bath, breastfeeding or bottle for infants, reading a book, singing a lullaby, rocking, brushing teeth, etc.
Whatever you choose to be incorporated in the bedtime routine, it is best to follow the same pattern each night. Most children don’t need to bathe each night, so this may only be included some nights and not others. It is best to brush teeth after the bottle or breastfeeding, if possible, to clean the teeth prior to sleep.
The bedtime routine does not have to be a long process and sometimes may need to be abbreviated. If your child is already showing signs of being sleepy, it is best not to do the whole bedtime routine at the risk of delaying sleep and your infant waking back up with a “second wind.” Delaying sleep in a tired child can make it more difficult for them to fall asleep, as they can wake back up or become overly tired.
A bedtime routine can be especially important when a child is sleeping somewhere other than their home. Traveling can disrupt sleep for anyone, including children. If you follow your traditional bedtime routine, this gives them consistency and can help them feel more comfortable in falling asleep in their new surroundings.
It is a good idea for grandparents, babysitters, etc., to also follow a version of the bedtime routine if putting the child to bed. Again, the consistency provides comfort.
As I mentioned in the beginning, a bedtime routine can help a person at any age. When adolescents are having a difficult time falling asleep, in addition to recommending turning off the TV and cellphone, I recommend they follow a routine each night to relax their body and let it know it is time for sleep.
Dana Johnson, MD
This article originally ran in the “Ask Dr. Johnson” column in the Wisconsin State Journal on November 3, 2010. Permission was given to repost this article on meriter.com.