Most people need time to wind down before bed, and babies are no different. A bedtime routine will not only help your little one get into relaxation mode before being placed in his crib, but it can also serve as a wonderful bonding experience for both of you.
"A bedtime routine is an easy strategy that makes a world of difference in how quickly your baby will settle to sleep and how much support he'll need to fall asleep," says Megan Faure, author of The BabySense Secret. "As time- consuming or rigid as it may feel, it saves you time and energy in the long run." One hour before you want your baby asleep (6 to 7 P.M. is an appropriate bedtime for your baby or toddler), begin your routine. Close the curtains, dim the room, and prepare his bottle and story. A warm bath can help soothe him, and when it's over, take him straight to his room and dress him in the darkened room with a lullaby CD. Read a story and then feed him in your arms. Once he is finished, settle him into a sleepy state and then put him to bed awake, but drowsy.
Must-know tips for developing a consistent routine to help baby sleep on a set schedule.
Babies and toddlers send out signals that they're getting tired and need to go to sleep, says Kim West, author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight. Some of those cues include eye rubbing, yawning, slowed activity, whining and fussing, and loss of interest in people and play. "If you miss your child's 'sleep window,' that natural time to sleep, his body won't be pumping out calming melatonin," says West. "Instead, his adrenal glands will send out a rush of cortisol, a stress-related hormone that will overstimulate your baby, make him 'wired,' and create a second wind."
Keep an eye on your little one throughout the day, and chances are you'll see a pattern develop around when he needs to nap and to go to bed each night. If you can't see those signals, West suggests going to a quiet, dimly lit room and engaging in a gentle activity when you think sleep time is approaching--you just might see the signs start to appear.
If you're in a situation with an overtired and overstimulated little one, says Faure, remove him from the stimulation and take him to a quiet space and invest a little more time than you usually would in settling him into a drowsy state.
We get it--when it's 3 A.M. and you're utterly exhausted, you'll do pretty much anything to get your newborn back to sleep. This usually includes rocking, nursing, walking, swinging, singing, rubbing her back, etc. According to West, as baby gets past three or four months, these simple habits become sleep crutches. "These are not negative or bad behaviors, but they become a problem--or a crutch--when they're so closely linked in the child's mind with slumber that he cannot drift off without them."
This means that each and every time your baby wakes up--and we all wake up several times throughout the night--she will need you to rock, nurse, swing, or sing her back to sleep. So although you can engage in these activities, you shouldn't let your child fall completely asleep to them. The key is to put your child to bed drowsy, but awake (preferably starting between six to eight weeks for healthy, full-term babies) so that she'll learn to self-soothe and get herself back to sleep each time she wakes up.
What happens if baby will only go to sleep while being rocked? Baby Sleep Whisperer Ingrid Prueher shares advice for breaking this bad bedtime habit to get baby to sleep through the night.
"This is a classic mistake parents make," says Faure. "Do not move your baby until he can climb out of the crib on his own. In that case, he is a danger to himself and must be moved into a bed. Otherwise, let him sleep in his crib until he's around two years old, when most toddlers are ready for a bed. A crib's sides provide a very useful barrier at a time when your baby cannot understand or obey verbal boundaries (such as 'Stay in your bed')."
If you are ready to transition your toddler to a crib, West says there are two approaches:
The Cold Turkey Method: Simply remove the crib and replace it with the new bed. Just be sure to have guard rails on both sides (or if the bed is against the wall, place the rail on the open side).
The Gradual Approach: Start by leaving the crib rail down, with a stool at the side so she can get out by herself, and some pillows near the bed in case she falls out. "If you can fit the new bed and the crib in the same room, you can start with reading books on the bed or have her nap in the bed," explains West. "Then pick the big night where she sleeps in the bed at night. Once she's sleeping in her bed for naps and nights, you can remove the crib.
Whichever method you choose, explain to your child that she should not get out of the bed without you. But just in case, be sure to childproof the room and consider putting a gate up at the bedroom door so you don't have to worry about your child getting up to explore in the middle of the night. You can make the transition fun by letting your little one choose her own quilt and sheets for the new bed, but resist the urge to lie down with her at night. "You may find yourself stuck there for months and even years!" says West.
No one wants to be a slave to her child's sleep schedule, but the simple truth is that naps in the stroller, in the car seat, or in the high chair do not provide your baby with the sleep he needs. "Motion sleep keeps the brain in a light sleep, so the child isn't falling into a deep, restful slumber," says West.
To develop good sleep habits, your baby should have a familiar sleep zone, a space where he goes to sleep for naps and bedtime at the same time each day. You can work around this rule in the case of important events and appointments, but most of the time you should stay consistent. Try to run errands in between naps. And if you are going out at night, get a babysitter or a family member (that's what grannies are for!) to help out so your baby isn't falling asleep overtired in an unfamiliar environment.
Consistency is key with children, especially when it comes to sleep, says West. "They need regular naptimes and reasonably regular bedtimes to regulate day and night hormone cycles--and their little hearts and minds need the predictability to feel secure."
Dr. Meltzer agrees: "Sleep schedules are very important for setting our internal clocks. A consistent sleep schedule will help a child get sleepy and fall asleep around the same time every day. If the schedule is constantly changing it's like flying back and forth across time zones every night; the body doesn't know when to fall asleep. Bedtime struggles often result from an inconsistent schedule as parents may be trying to put their children to bed too early (when the child isn't tired) or too late (when the child is overtired)."
Of course, there's room for some flexibility. Some days your child will nap more, and others she will nap less. "As you learn to read her sleep cues and recognize her sleep windows, you'll be able to adjust the schedule more easily," says West. If your little one is content, you've probably got a good sleep schedule going on. If she's fussy and demanding, she may need longer naps, an earlier bedtime, a later wake-up, or all of the above.
It sounds like a good idea--after all, when teens go to bed late, don't they want to sleep until noon the next day? Unfortunately, that just doesn't work for little ones "Again, the internal clock is a powerful force that typically wakes young children up around the same time every morning, no matter what time they go to sleep at night," says Dr. Meltzer. "So parents who lets their child stay up late are simply asking for an overtired child the next day." Instead, keep a set bedtime to make sure your child gets the 10 to 11 hours of sleep he needs each night.
And if your little one is getting up way too early (before 6 A.M.), it's probably a sign that your child is going to bed too late, so try putting him to bed 30 minutes or even an hour earlier.
Let's face it--it's hard to make wise decisions at 2 A.M. And those middle-of-the-night wakings are usually when parents make their biggest sleep mistakes. According to West, one of the biggest is reactive co-sleeping. "This is when a family co-sleeps because it's the only way to get their child to sleep, not because they've made a decision to co-sleep as a family," says West.
This is also the time when sleep crutches are relied upon. "Parents inadvertently create more crying by giving up and resorting to their original sleep crutch after a certain amount of time," says West. "For example, 'I let him cry for 30 minutes and then got him out and rocked him to sleep because I couldn't take it anymore.'" So the baby learns that if he cries, you'll eventually give him what he wants--and you'll have to do it again and again when he wakes up throughout the night.
When you get to a point where you feel you're not making good sleep decisions for your child, ask your spouse to step in. Taking turns getting up in the middle of the night will give each of you the chance to get some sleep, ensuring that you're making the best choices when it's your time to wake up!
"Parents must be a united front when it comes to improving their child's sleep," says West. "You need to agree on what tactic you're going to use to help your child learn to self-soothe and get a good night's rest. It's okay for your routines to be slightly different--Dad might like to read a few books at bedtime and Mom reads only one--but the big decisions need to be agreed upon in advance."
Those decisions include what time Baby needs to go to sleep and whether you?re going to rely on any sleep crutches to get her to sleep. That means one parent can't decide rocking the baby to sleep is A-OK if the other parent doesn't want to do it at bedtime and throughout the night. Sit down together and figure out what works for both of you. And if one of you (hello, Mom) is getting up more than the other, then what makes that parent most comfortable should take precedence. Remember: Being consistent every night is imperative to the sleep process.
It's never too late to change bad sleep habits, but parents need to practice patience. "Expecting quick results when trying to change a habit you've created with your child for months and often years is not realistic," says West. "Parents need to dedicate two to three weeks to sleep coaching to see significant changes in night sleep and naps."
Some parents fall into the trap of believing that their child's sleep habits will change on their own and that they just have to endure the sleep deprivation in the meantime. That's simply not true, says West. With time and effort on your part, your baby--and the rest of the house--will soon be sleeping peacefully throughout the night. Trust us, any work you need to put into it will be well worth it.