You couldn’t resist your little one’s pleas for “just 10 more minutes” of his favorite show, and now bedtime has come and gone. You turn off the tube, break out the jammies and whisk him upstairs. No time to read or wind down. But he’s tired, so he’ll sleep, right? Not exactly.
“Everyone needs a series of predictable steps that they take every night to help them sleep,” says Jill Spivack, a sleep specialist and co-creator of the Sleepeasy Solution.
In other words, whisking him from playtime to bedtime might actually be depriving your child of the very cues he needs to make it smoothly into slumber. The good news: a solid routine can make evenings less stressful and far more fun for everyone.
Here are 4 tips from our experts on making better bedtime routines:
Make a plan.
Exactly what you do before bedtime is a mix of personal preference and practicality. Your routine might include a bath, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, reading together, talking or saying a prayer. What matters most is ensuring the routine is soothing and consistent. Once you have a plan, write it down and share it with your kids (see our troubleshooting tips for more on this).
Unplug and wind down.
Long before his head hits the pillow, your child will need to start the process of winding down his body and brain, says Kim West, a family therapist who specializes in sleep issues. That means no caffeine and also “no screen time—that’s computer, TV, video games, texting, even the iPod—for at least an hour before bedtime.” Instead, think gentle play (take note dad, no tickle sessions before bed), reading or conversation. You might also try a warm bath or even sleep-inducing, kid-friendly yoga poses, says West.
Set the mood.
Aim for low lighting and soft sounds. If your child needs music to sleep, go with music only—no lyrics, says West. And aim to stay within the sleep environment by reading bedtime stories in his room—not yours—and resisting his pleas to “give the dog one more kiss,” or do anything else that will have him leaving the bedroom, says Spivack.
Stick with it
Following the same routine nightly actually makes it physically easier for your child to fall asleep by giving his body cues to secrete hormones that induce sleep. And if your child knows you’re a stickler for the rules, he’s less likely to stall and delay, making bedtime smoother and more pleasant all around.
There’s no one-size-fits-all bedtime routine. Some moms go with the bare essentials, while others turn the evening witching hour into something magical. Mix and match from the options below, or add your own:
- Bath: Aim for a warm soak, rather than a manic splashing.
- Brush teeth: It’s important for health reasons, but over time it will also help to send your body “go to sleep” signals
- Wash face: More signals to tell your little one it’s time to sleep.
- Potty time and glass of water: One last chance to use the toilet before bed and to fill up a small glass of water. Having water bedside will help ward off requests for water later.
- Pick out pajamas: Give your child a feeling of control over bedtime by letting her choose, but limit the options to two or three.
- Pick out books: Again, he’s in charge. Let him choose two or three books for you to read.
- Bedtime yoga: Pick some child–friendly, sleep–friendly poses to wind her body down.
- Talk quietly: Connect by talking about her day or engaging in some creative thinking. Or, have her “pick a dream” to decide what she’ll dream about tonight.
- Read: Read to your child. Avoid the “one more story” plea by establishing ahead of time how many books you’ll read.
- Deep pressure exercises: Help her relax by having her tighten and release muscles, starting from the toes and moving up her body.
- Lullaby: Quietly sing or hum your child’s favorite lullaby. Try Yo Gabba Gabba’s song, “Think Happy Thoughts.”
- Prayer: This can range from a formal religious prayer to a few simple words giving thanks.
- Say goodnight: To each other, the moon, the stars, the teddy bear — let your child lead the way.
- Snuggle: Tuck her in and kiss her goodnight so you can both go to bed feeling warm and fuzzy.