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What is a bedtime routine and how important is it?

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I was working with a client recently and they expressed concerns with their 2-year old’s sleep habits.  They stated that they have always co-slept and are trying to stop because their child frequently wakes up overnight.  Before I offered the family any strategies, I wanted to gather as much information as possible. One of the questions I asked was “What does your bedtime routine look like?”  Sounds like a pretty straight forward question, right?  However, immediately after I asked the child’s mother that question, she paused and said, “I’m not sure what you mean by that.”

So, that got me thinking.  What did I really mean by that?  To me, a routine is a series of events that take place around the same time every day and approximately the same order for consistency.  Once I explained to her what a routine meant to me, she responded by stating that they don’t do things the same every night.  They just put their daughter in her bed and are frustrated that she doesn’t fall asleep on her own.

There are a lot more strategies that this particular family needs assistance with other than just their routine. However, sometimes making some small changes may make a big difference.

With that said, here is our schedule and an in-depth look of what our nighttime routine looks like with our son who is currently 27-months old.

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Our nighttime routine, as I call it, starts about an hour before his bedtime.   At 7pm, we no longer have any screen time and electronic exposure to our son.  This includes, no tv time, no computers, no toys with lights/batteries, and no phones.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is recommended that no screen time occurs within 30-60-minutes before a sleep time as electronics stimulate the brain.

After all of the electronics are turned off, we offer him a bedtime snack at 7:30.  I like to offer him a snack about an hour before bedtime because this way he doesn’t associate  that he needs the food in order to fall asleep, but I know it’s enough time until morning and he shouldn’t wake up overnight due to hunger.  We also do not offer him any milk after dinner time because it has sugar in it.  I don’t want him to think that he needs the milk to fall asleep. Even though we brush his teeth, we don’t want his teeth exposed to the extra sugar before bed.

When his snack is all done, we immediately guide him upstairs to his room.  Here, we do a diaper change, pajamas, brush and floss teeth, turn on his ceiling fan and humidifier, close our blackout curtains,  and then dim his bedroom lights.

At 8pm sharp, his sound machine automatically starts which is an auditory cue for him that this sound means it’s almost time for bed. Between 8:00 and 8:15, we snuggle and read books.  At 8:15 we give him a hug, kiss, say I love you, tuck him in, and leave the room.  Depending on the age of your child, they might still need a pacifier as well.  Since it typically takes him around 10-15 minutes to fall asleep on his own, our goal is for him to be asleep around 8:30 pm.  But he doesn’t cry!  Unless he is sick of course.  He is able to independently, and consistently put himself to sleep and he sleeps until around 6:30-7:00 am.

We also try to keep his naptime routine very similar to his nighttime routine.  A few differences are: instead of a snack an hour before his bedtime, he has lunch about an hour before his nap and we do not brush or floss his teeth before nap.   Immediately after lunch, we bring him upstairs for a diaper change, dim the lights, and turn on the fan. The  sound machine starts automatically at noon, and then we turn on the humidifier.  We read books for 10 to 15 minutes and then off to nap he goes!

I know that to some, this routine might seem rigid.  However, this is what works best for our family and our son responds to it.  According to Zero To Three, routines have several benefits including that it teaches toddlers and babies self control, they can help reduce the parent/child power struggle, they guide positive behavior and they help develop a child’s social skills.

It is never too late or too early to start incorporating a new routine.  As long as you find something that works for you, and you are consistent with it, you will see results.

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