We’ve all been there, on the front lines of the Bedtime Battle: It’s 8:30p.m. or 10:00p.m, or maybe even later, your baby or toddler is still awake, even though you started getting ready for bed hours ago. Your toddler is running around the house partly dressed, shouting an assertive “No!” each time you try to coral him towards his toothbrush, books, and snuggle time. You are exhausted. Your spouse is exhausted. It is taking every ounce of your willpower not to shout at everyone to just get their butts to bed and go to sleep. After everyone is finally in bed, it’s only moments until you hear the request for water, a night light, another hug, another story, or a cry from the baby’s room.
Finally, by 10:30, everyone is actually sleeping and you can barely keep your eyes open, let alone face the fact that all of this will be repeated tomorrow night, and the next night, and the next night.
While the Bedtime Battle is something of a cliche–wasn’t bedtime exactly when our mothers would say to us, “Someday, I hope that you have a child who does exactly this each and every night. Then you’ll know…”?–it doesn’t have to play out this way in your house every single night. In fact, the opposite can easily be true for you: bedtime can be a very special, quiet, peaceful time for you and your young children with just a few simple adjustments, some new habits, and guidance. One of the reasons I love being a Pediatric Sleep Consultant is how beautiful and rewarding it is to watch bedtime turn from a struggle that distresses everyone into the most precious time of day for both parent and child. Here are my five favorite tips for helping bedtime in your house, too:
Five tips for a bedtime that everyone looks forward to
- Earlier bedtime–By making the simple adjustment of an earlier bedtime, most families I work with absolutely transform difficult nights into dreams come true. When babies and children are overtired, their bodies begin to produce adrenaline and cortisol and the melatonin production comes to a halt. The energy present in those little bodies masquerades as happy, almost manic energy, when really these little ones are past the point of tired. These hormones also continue to flow all night, so even when you finally get your baby to sleep, she’ll likely wake up soon and need helping getting back to sleep. By adjusting to an earlier bedtime, you can help your baby or child utilize the peak of their melatonin production and forego having to deal with any kind of crazy energy right when you want them to be winding down. For most babies, a bedtime of 6:30-7:00pm is appropriate, for toddlers 7:30. Along the same line, make sure that your little one is getting the daytime sleep he or she needs each day, and bedtime will be a much smoother transition.
- Develop a bedtime routine that is enjoyable for both you and your child. Think of activities that are both calming and sustainable. If you have a small baby, this might include things like a baby massage, diaper change, jammies, a nursing session, some songs, and then bed. If you have an older baby or toddler, include some books. Keep the routine to about 30 minutes in length, so that even on days that are a little rushed you can do the routine at bedtime. Some parents want to include a bath in the routine, but baths are often too long to fit into every evening, they can be stimulating, and they are likely drying to baby’s sensitive skin if they occur every day. A gentle, calm routine will do wonders to cue your child’s sleepy hormones and get them ready for a nice long sleep. Extra credit? Have your toddler help you create their sleep-space and their routine. Proud ownership and independence leads to buy-in and excitement about bedtime.
- Start the wind-down and hour before lights out. Kids’ brains and bodies are always on the go, go, go. Babies are always watching, learning, moving, and developing at a rate faster than they ever will again during their lifetime. It’s important to empathize with how hard it is for them to switch gears and calm down in preparation for bedtime. I always recommend a few household rules within an hour of bed: no screen-time–this means TVs, iPads, and iPhones are turned off and put away, even mom’s and dad’s. On a scale of 1-10, if running around playing and rough-housing are a 10, activities should be at a 4 or lower–read a few books, do some puzzles, introduce some simple yoga poses, or listen to some fun songs. That way, when you start the bedtime routine, the transition is not a stark contrast to what was just going on. Granted, there are those days when a whirlwind of activity leads right into bedtime–on those days exercise some patience, flexibility, and understanding that your little one might take a little longer to shift gears.
- Be predictable in your responses. It can be very confusing–and very stimulating–for babies and kids if your responses to their wakefulness is unpredictable. If, for instance, you usually walk your toddler back to bed after she wakes up and comes into your room, but one night you just have her crawl into your bed with you, you are introducing unpredictability into what she can expect from you. Kids thrive on predictability, so the more consistent you can be in how you respond, the better off you will be in the long run and bedtime will be something that is comfortable and reassuring to little ones.
- Stick with it. You will only reap the benefits of a calm and enjoyable bedtime if you employ these strategies and stick with them. If you try to change things up and find that it’s difficult the first few days, then give up, reaching that goal will seem impossible. However, if you follow through and create the space and time for it, the right kind of bedtime will not only become a foundation on which you can rely for healthy sleep, but it can also provide the sweetest kind of memories for you and your children.
Guiding your child to change behaviors takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and with your baby or child and bedtime will surely turn from a battlefield into a special time for both of you.