I don’t know if you saw it or not, but this week Sarah Ockwell Smith posted her suggestions for getting babies ready for the clock change at the end of October. My “babies” are 9 and 6, and I don’t remember the clocks going forwards or backwards ever being that big a deal, but I know that there are many, many babies out there for whom a set bedtime is absolutely essential.
If you are interested in working out how you are going to transition to an hour’s earlier bed, here’s a link to the article: https://sarahockwell-smith.com/2015/09/10/how-to-help-babies-children-with-clock-changes
The key thing with all baby and toddler bedtimes is the routine. It doesn’t have to be at exactly the same time every night, but it is the pattern and the cues that are the important thing. For a tiny newborn it doesn’t really matter – they will sleep downstairs in the moses basket next to you while you watch TV of an evening. There’s not a lot of value in putting them upstairs to bed at a set time at this age, as before the age of 12 weeks their body clock isn’t really functioning at all.
As they start to get a bit older, you may start to think about introducing a bedtime routine, in the sense of having an order you do things before getting your baby to sleep, especially if you have older children already. This routine doesn’t have to involve anything in particular.
We think of baths as being an integral part of a bedtime routine, but for babies who hate a bath, or who find it incredibly exciting, a bath might not be appropriate. Also, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t bother bathing my babies every day – even now my 9 year old has to have some serious persuasion that he needs to wash: “But Mum, I had a bath YESTERDAY!”
The key thing here is that the routine is consistent, so if you are not going to bathe your baby every night, do the bath bit before the main bedtime routine gets going.
If the bath is part of the routine, make sure it is a relaxing, quiet bath, with dim lighting and not a riot of colourful toys and splashing and fun! You want them to be winding down, NOT up at this time of day. Reduce the sensory stimulation to a minimum. I’ve never achieved this with my kids and so after a really fun bath it can be tricky to get them to calm down and start thinking about sleep.
Similarly to baths, story time can also be great fun, and a great excuse for many children to drag out the bedtime routine and put off sleep as long as possible. It’s really nice to let them choose the book they want you to read – and choices are great – but if it gets to the point where they are asking for more and more stories, try limiting it to 2 or 3 books. Get them to choose the books first, then take them to bed to read. My daughter is a great one for getting up, wandering off, choosing a book, getting distracted… and it goes on and on. It totally depends on your setup at home, but if your child is distracted by too much choice and too many books, maybe you need to remove books and toys from their bedroom. (Easier said than done, but it is easier to control the environment than get your child to ignore distractions!)
Having said that, reading to your child is fantastic for their development, and once they get to school age you really notice what a beneficial effect it has on their vocabulary, their spelling, and fostering a love of reading.
So what does an ideal bedtime routine look like?
I’m not going to prescribe a set of things you must do, which will enable your child to quietly drift off into a peaceful 12 hour sleep, because I’m not a miracle worker! And every child is different. Some amazing babies and toddlers can be plonked in their bed and left alone and they go to sleep no trouble. Others require a LOT more parental effort to help them relax and stop fighting sleep. After all, sleep is for wimps. Here’s an article I found about children that fight bedtime, which is well worth a read if yours won’t go to bed.
It is important to consider all of their senses when devising your own routine.
- Sight: As I mentioned in the bathtime section, we need low light to feel sleepy. Blue light from screens and overhead lighting is particularly bad for sleep, so consider the lighting in your house. Perhaps invest in blackout blinds. If you are looking for a nightlight, go for one that gives off red light, rather than blue, or nothing too exciting and distracting. When we’re tired and fighting sleep we will look for distractions to keep us awake – hence why I stay up way past my bedtime looking at crap on my phone.
- Sound: White noise for babies is brilliant to help them switch off. You can buy specially designed music for babies and toddlers that works to calm them down. Or you could consider playing anything you find relaxing. The important thing is consistency, so yes, soothing music will help them go to sleep – as long as you condition them to it for a couple of weeks. And once they are conditioned to music, or radio 4, or whatever, you will need to make sure you play it every night.
- Smell: Lavender and Chamomile are proven to be relaxing scents that you can use in the room to help your baby sleep. You can buy oil diffusing fans, or use a body lotion scented with lavender. Again, be consistent and use it every night. It’s not an instant solution! What you are trying to do here is build up a set of sleep cues, or associations, that once your baby is conditioned to them, will work at a deep subconscious level to tell your child it’s time to sleep when those cues are present. One benefit of creating these sleep cues is that you can take them anywhere, so if you go away on holiday, you can use the same sleep cues and it should help your child sleep, even in a new environment.
- Touch: Your baby or child may need to be rocked or cuddled to sleep. That’s fine, and the most effective way of making your little one feel safe and secure. We are primitive beings in our instincts, and a child’s instincts tell them that the safest place to sleep is being held by a person who can protect them. It won’t last forever – enjoy those cuddles. As they get older you can gradually reduce the amount of support they need to get to sleep, but for now stick with what works.
They may also take to a comforter or cuddly toy. This is simply a replacement for a cuddle, and brilliant if they will use one. Consider buying two the same in case one gets lost! Remember smell here – for a baby especially, the comforter will work if it smells of you. Pop it down your top overnight while you sleep, before giving it to them.
- Taste: Feeding to sleep is not a bad habit. It’s by far the quickest way to get a baby to sleep. I do appreciate that weaning them off night time boob or bottles is difficult, but don’t even try it with a baby under 6 months at the very, very earliest – they may still need to feed through the night. Even once they are no longer hungry at night, they will still get a lot of comfort from milk at bedtime, and when weaning off the breast or the bottle it’s usually the last one to be dropped. Try not to worry about this, or feel that there is an age where a child “should” be completely weaned. Every child is different and every family’s priorities are different. There will come a point where they naturally don’t need it. If you can’t wait until that point here’s an article on weaning. (Also, don’t feel guilty about night weaning your child – you have your reasons and they are perfectly valid.)
Toddlers may well need a pre-bed snack. Here is a list of ones that could aid sleep:
With any bedtime routine, timing is crucial. You don’t want the steps you go through to be too lengthy and protracted, but also you don’t want it to be so short they don’t have time to process that it is time to sleep. The general consensus seems to be around 20-30 minutes is ideal.
While on the subject of timing, you also need to be thinking about what time is best to aim for them to be asleep. In our culture 7pm seems to be commonly accepted as “bedtime” for babies and young children, but that may be too late or too early for some. Depending on their naps and what time they get up in the morning, a later bedtime is probably more likely for most babies and toddlers. We always recommend this for everything, but following your baby or toddler’s cues is brilliant for making life easier. Just because it’s 6:45pm doesn’t mean that they are tired. They might have had a busy day and be tired half an hour earlier, or they might be feeling particularly energetic and not need to go to bed for another hour. A bedtime routine is just a series of events you follow before bed – these don’t have to be rigidly linked to particular times on a clock.