The Dos and Don'ts of a Good Bedtime Routine for Children

By Sheryl Grassie

Apr 21st, 2022

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Bedtime for children is too often a struggle rather than a pleasure. The solution is twofold; understand why it is hard for kids to go to sleep and manage your child’s bedtime routine with our list of dos and don’ts.

What Are the Benefits of a Bedtime Routine for Kids?

Just as you might have a morning routine to get your kids ready for school, children need a consistent bedtime routine that prepares them for a good night’s sleep. A bedtime routine helps your children relax while simultaneously encouraging them to complete necessary tasks, such as brushing their teeth.

Research published by the Journal of Family Psychology suggests that language-based (verbal) bedtime routines may have long-lasting sleep and cognitive benefits for kids. In addition to helping children establish routines they’ll carry into adulthood, your children also begin to learn the importance of sleep hygiene.

Why is it Hard for Children to Go to Sleep?

This is a million dollar question. Why do children see sleep as the enemy and put up a fight at bedtime? There are several very viable answers, and barring any sickness or unusual or stressful circumstances in your child’s life, understanding the basics of sleep resistance can help with formulating a plan to improve sleep.

Separation anxiety

First, there is the innate issue of culture and sleep. Worldwide, except in Western societies, children do not sleep alone. In all primitive cultures, children sleep with parents or siblings for an extended period. This might make our expectation of children sleeping alone in their own bed, and often their own room, contrary to their inherent tendencies. It has been said by some sleep researchers that children sleeping alone have to overcome the uncomfortable feeling of separation. It is not necessarily natural for children to sleep by themselves. This, in part or whole, may explain why children, for seemingly no reason, fight bedtime. They feel the separation on an unconscious level and react to it.

Daytime habits

Another reason children fight bedtime, is that their daytime needs have not been met, or their daytime routines interfere, and their bodies resist winding down and going to sleep. This can happen from a lack of exercise, because an active day generally equates to an easier bedtime and better sleep. It can happen from a lack of sunlight, because light controls sleep hormones and children who don’t get sufficient daylight can have trouble transitioning into sleep. It can be from eating in the evening, too much screen time close to bed, or too much physical activity that winds them up. They can fight bedtime because of an inconsistent wake/sleep schedule or a bedtime routine that is always changing.

Finding a solution at bedtime

The solution to any of these issues can be handled with a good bedtime routine. The goal of the routine is to teach your child to feel secure sleeping on their own, to create self-sufficiency with going to sleep, and even for them to look forward to going to bed. Self-sufficiency allows your child to put themselves back to sleep in the middle of the night, and to go to sleep with little reliance on their parents. There is nothing worse than a child that can’t sleep unless you stay in the room with them. No parent wants to be held hostage to a child’s dictates around sleep. But, if children don’t naturally go to sleep on their own, there may need to be a learning process in order for them to become independent sleepers.

Your Child’s Bedtime Routine: Dos and Don’ts

Some experts advise that before you start to practice a new bedtime routine, or before you change an existing one, it helps to gather information about your child’s sleep habits. Keep a diary about your child for several weeks prior to making a change, so you can assess what will work best. Make notes on your child’s day.

  • What time do they routinely wake up?
  • How much exercise did they get?
  • How much sunlight and when?
  • How much TV or screen time did they have, especially in the evening?
  • Make note of after dinner snacks; time and amount of food.
  • Pay attention to when your child naturally starts to get tired.
  • Describe what their current bedtime routine looks like.

This information will enable you to create a bedtime routine that is an excellent fit for your child.

Once you gather this information, start thinking about the kind of routine that will work for you and your child. What structure and activates will help teach your child to ease into sleep on their own? The following are some basics to consider for a good sleep routine.

The Dos: Things to incorporate

Ask yourself as you put together a routine, “Does this increase my child’s self-sufficiency with sleep?”

  • Start when your child is young. You will have to evolve the routine as they grow older, but the earlier they learn, the better chance of self-sufficiency.
  • Establish the correct bedtime. Your diary should give you some idea of the time your child starts to naturally get sleepy. Children need to wind down, be done with their routine and in bed, when the tiredness hits. Often parents wait for children to get sleepy, but this can backfire. At the point they show tiredness, any further activity can wind them up. Make an effort to have them in bed beforehand, even if it means moving bedtime up and starting their routine much earlier.
  • Establish a consistent routine. This cannot be stressed enough! Children thrive on consistency and a consistent bedtime routine can make a huge difference in how well your child sleeps. Consistency also promotes learning and self-sufficiency.
  • Make the routine simple and age appropriate. Simple routines work best. Does your child like to be read to? Would they prefer you tell them a bedtime story? You can establish a set of four variables like: Go change into your pajamas, brush your teeth, then we will read a story, then we will say your prayers and lights out.
  • Let then have a security object or ritual. Some children do better if they are left with a blanket or a stuffed toy, as a transition object to separate from mom or dad. Some children with night fears need a ritual like a “prayer for protection” or a blessing to help them feel safe.
  • Give your child some control. Let them pick the book, or which pajamas to wear, or which stuffed toy they want to sleep with. Giving them some control improves their buy in and encourages their independence toward good sleep habits.

The Don’ts: Things to eliminate

  • Don’t give in when they push. If they ask to stay up later or ask for one more story, hold firm to the established routine. Remember a consistent bedtime routine pays off in numerous ways over time, like a better night’s sleep, falling asleep faster, and an easier bedtime routine overall.
  • Don’t stay until your child falls asleep. This can create dependency on your presence. The goal is independence, so leave the room while they are still awake and let them learn to fall asleep on their own.
  • Don’t make the routine complicated. Since the goal is learning, keep in mind that it is easier for your child to learn a routine, and have it signal them to sleep, if it is not too complicated.
  • Don’t let them exercise or have any wild play before bed. This can dis-regulate them for sleeping. Keep all physical activity to a minimum in the hours before bed.
  • Don’t watch TV.  Experts recommend no TV or screen time for at least two hours before bed. It can wind them up and the blue light affects sleep patterns.
  • Don’t create crutches. In order to be an independent sleeper, children can’t rely on externals. No TV putting them to sleep, no music, no back rubs from mom or dad. You are teaching them to be self-sufficient and not dependent on things that may or may not be available when they need them.
  • Don’t eat or drink near bedtime. Food and the digestive process in general can disrupt sleep. Stimulants like caffeine, sugar, or certain chemicals in foods can make sleep and bedtime difficult. Restrict specifically chocolate and high caffeine foods and drinks.

Teaching your child to fall asleep on their own can be an easy and pleasurable experience for both parents and children. Start a routine when your child is very young, and focus on the goal of creating increased self-sufficiency as they age.  Further, a consistent bedtime routine creates expectations for your child and cures the brain to go to sleep. There are daytime and evening do’s and don’ts that support better sleep. Remember, a good bedtime routine equates to a good night’s sleep.