Did you know that research1 has shown that a consistent toddler bedtime routine not only helps kiddos fall asleep quicker, sleep longer and wake up less during the night but helps decrease daytime behavior struggles2?
A nighttime routine with your baby or toddler can consist of anything that works for them and your family. Get creative and focus on connecting with your little one!
Below are some helpful guidelines as you find your way or need a change.
– Do’s – Creating Baby/Toddler Bedtime Routine Success
Keep it Simple and Repeatable
Consistency is key! Find a routine that you can repeat nightly, if not almost every night. It doesn’t need to be long or complicated. The simpler, the better.
These steps, repeated nightly, are indicators to your baby that it’s time to go to bed. You might even be surprised to find that they begin to ask for their bath or pajamas when they feel tired.
A routine for a young baby can be as simple as a feed, diaper change, pajamas on, and a song. It may be as short as 10 or 15 minutes or a little longer if you include a bath.
The More the Merrier
Getting both parents involved or an older sibling is a great opportunity to “lighten the load” of getting ready for bed, so it doesn’t fall on one person.
If you are currently doing the routine on your own and would like to get a partner or caregiver involved and you find your baby resists having someone else step in, begin by doing parts or the whole routine together. Then work your way up to your partner/caregiver taking over certain parts.
Know Your Child
What calms your baby or toddler? Some parents swear by a nightly bath, while other babies can find it stimulating and exciting. The vast majority of babies and kids need downtime and quiet before bed (around an hour), but some will need to exert their last bit of energy before calming down.
Notice if there is an emerging habit showing itself and if something is working, let it stay.
My daughter notoriously runs back and forth for about 15 minutes about an hour before bed. Sometimes we even gently wrestle around this time.
If you are stuck and struggling with a nighttime schedule, try not to make too many changes at once. Give something a try for a few days, one thing at a time. This also applies when shifting bedtime or during daylights savings. Often parents find success with incremental changes by changing bedtime by 15 minutes at a time.
Set the Bedtime Mood
Creating an atmosphere of calm is equally helpful for newborns (as they begin to discern between day and night) as it is for older kids. An hour or more before, dim the lights, turn any music down, and shift activities and the tone of your voice to reflect a nighttime mood.
As for where the baby sleeps, a very dark room often works well. Some kids may prefer a nightlight if they are scared of the dark.
As someone who lives in Sweden, where the days can get long during the summer, a black-out curtain is essential for our family. White noise machines can also be calming for babies and serve as another cue its bedtime.
As they get older and separation anxiety is more likely to kick in, a transitional object like their favorite stuffed animal or blanket can ease stress for them. Another thing to consider is having a water bottle nearby. This can be especially helpful during a weaning transition.
Let the Routine Intuitively Change Over Time
If there is anything I know after a few years into parenthood, habits and routines can work like a charm until they just don’t anymore. What worked a few months ago might be old news, and you’ll see signs it is time to change things up.
As your baby gets older, your routine may need to be adjusted. Remember to keep it simple and manageable and let it consist of things that suit your child.
I’ll mention here that it’s easy to think that what you’re doing now will last forever, especially when what you’re doing feels like a challenge or brings up doubt.
For example, some parents can feel shameful around breastfeeding to sleep, rocking, or holding based on what society says or what they believe you should do as a parent.
I breastfed my daughter nightly until she was a little over a year. While I doubted this decision at times, eventually, this changed to reading books and talking about her day. I look back now on our nighttime journey and while not always easy, I feel proud of how we navigated it.
Build Trust and Play Games
Playing fun games is a wonderful way to build confidence, trust, and independence with your baby or toddler as they learn to sleep more independently. You can read more and gain free access to five different Play2Sleep games here. Think of these games as a complementary and effective way to nurture your baby’s cognitive, social, and emotional development.
– Don’ts – Baby/Toddler Bedtime Routine
Don’t Wait Until They are Overtired
As much as we’d love for our babies to drift into a full night of slumber when they have gone past their limit, sadly, this isn’t the case. Putting them down when they are overtired often leads to it taking longer for them to fall asleep and more frequent wake-ups during the night.
There is a sweet spot of getting them to sleep when they are tired but not overtired, and often it can be helpful to get them to bed earlier than later.
Bedtime will depend mainly on the baby or toddler’s age, so adjusting this as they get older is good to do.
How do you know when to do this? After you see that nighttime has been a struggle, an earlier bedtime may do the trick. When looking at sleep, it’s helpful to approach it from a holistic point of view. Make sure to rule out other reasons like daytime sleep or them being uncomfortable for any other reason.
Be mindful and even take note of your little one’s sleepy cues, your baby’s behavioral signs that communicate different levels of tiredness.
If this is new to you or you’re struggling to identify the link between nap times and sleep, this free downloadable Sleepy Signs Journal can help!
Don’t Let a Toddler’s NO’s Get you Discouraged
There’s nothing quite like being tested with your toddler’s incessant NO to everything you ask. One tip is to give them a say and let them decide between this or that. We routinely ask our daughter if she wants to change into pajamas first or brush her teeth first. She almost always says pajamas, but it eliminates the power struggle.
Offering an option gives them a sense of independence, lets them feel in control, and can seriously reduce the nighttime battles, or other power struggles throughout the day.
Don’t Be Distracted
Bedtime is the perfect time to connect with your baby, so presence and undivided attention are essential. Use this time to create connection and trust between you and your baby/toddler.
Talk about the day, sing a song, and stay engaged and present. Fill up their emotional cup! They often feel this and respond to it. If changing diapers or into pajamas is a fight, divert their attention by talking about their day or singing a song. This is another excellent example of when it’s helpful to tag-team this with a partner or other sibling.
Don’t Give Sugar or Screen Time Before Bed
This one isn’t about striving for perfection because let’s face it, there are nights out and times when a little screen time offers us parents sanity. But it’s important to remember their little bodies and brains can be more sensitive than we give them credit for.
And while some swear by a pre-snooze snack of banana (they provide magnesium and potassium which can aid in relaxation), avoiding all fruits before bed may be best if you’re experiencing sleep struggles.
Once again, be mindful, know your child, and learn from past mistakes. I’ll never forget giving our daughter some orange pieces before bed when she began eating solids. She gave us quite the show, hopping around with energy for what seemed like an hour.
Relaxation is the name of the game, so the same goes for avoiding screentime which can be activating and energizing. You’ve probably heard about avoiding your phone before bed due to the blue light it emits, so consider its effects on your baby/toddler.
Remember: If something is working, no need to change it.
Appreciate the smoother periods while they are present. These tiny humans change so quickly that the growing pains can manifest in places like the bedtime routine.
Times of struggle can be re-framed and seen as teaching moments and requests for connection. When a baby or toddler is expressing themselves through resistance, big emotions, or resistance, they are trying to share a need with you in the only way they know how at that moment.
At the end of the day, there are no exact rules for creating a smooth and effective nighttime routine. While these tips can help guide you, we hope you find success in creating a nighttime routine that is unique and best suited for your little one.
Are you looking for help in making a change or transition with your baby? Team Baby Sleep Advice is here with open hearts and ears. We value a gentle approach where it’s possible to skip the tears while making changes that best support your baby and family. Explore Heidi’s award-winning sleep programs and determine which path is right for you!
This is an amazingly complete article Steph, and full of truly useful tips – thank you so much for this! 🙏