Whether you’re just beginning your sleep-teaching journey, or have been at it for some time, you’ve likely been told to establish a bedtime routine.
It’s true! Children at all ages – even in early infancy – thrive on consistency. Consistency provides predictability and comfort. We love consistency, but strive for consistently healthy habits over consistently bad habits.
Even with a ‘routine,’ some parents – and children – dread bedtime. In infancy, bedtime is often the precursor to crying and frustration, which seems more easily avoided by holding, rocking and pacifying. In the toddler years, bedtimes have a funny way of getting more cumbersome. The child who not-so-long-ago would wear nothing but pajamas, is suddenly staging an all-out protest about the need to wear pajamas at all.
Somewhere along the line – right around the time you went from reading one book to six, followed by a trip to the bathroom for a cup of water and a dash to the kitchen for a final snack – bedtime became less calming and more of a chore.
It’s no wonder parents frequently tell me their child has an early bedtime, only to admit it may be hours before they actually fall asleep.
If we break it down, bedtime is really defined by a change in activity. Among infants, it’s more easily defined as the change from alert and wide-awake to drowsy and sleepy. In toddlers and young children, it’s the time to transition from stimulating play and activity to more subdued tasks, like brushing teeth, putting on pajamas and reading books.
In comparison, asleep time is just that – in bed, eyes closed.
Bedtime, and everything it entails, should be calculated based on your child’s ideal ‘asleep’ time, which we always want to be early. If you’re working on putting your infant down at 6:30 p.m., but know that you are likely to have a few minutes of protest crying and self-soothing after their last feeding, consider beginning your bedtime routine 15-20 minutes earlier.
If you have a toddler or child who has mastered stall tactics, including ‘just’ one more book, a dire need to wear their shirt backwards and pants inside out, concern over their sick ‘stuffies’ needing a check-up, or sudden interest in a play-by-play of your day at the office, consider beginning bedtime early enough to accommodate accordingly.
As you work to eliminate your child’s stall tactics, try to lead by example. Offer them your undivided attention in the time leading up to sleep. Limit those all-too-easy, “I’ll be there in a minute,” responses, as well as your focus on devices, cleaning up the kitchen or catching up with your chatty neighbor.
In all, bedtime should be no more than a 20-minute routine for toddlers and preschoolers – shorter even for infants.
And just as it took time to fall into bad habits, it will take time – and certain protest – to reinforce healthy habits. But it can be done!