How to Create a Great Bedtime Routine

calmBy Dr. Laura Nathanson,
Author of The Portable Pediatrician

Good bedtime rituals are those that help babies and children fall asleep. Great rituals are those that spare the loving adult from having to keep putting the child back to sleep at frequent intervals during the night.

Babies and young children are highly attuned to what feels normal and what feels strange. This awareness gets very acute when it comes to falling asleep. Good bedtime rituals create a safe, normal feeling, so your child drifts off into dreamland without protest.

However, falling asleep at bedtime is not the only time that your little cherub falls asleep. The natural sleep cycle produces brief awakenings every few hours during the night. If your child is used to falling asleep at bedtime while nursing, or in someone’s arms, those brief awakenings are going to feel like bedtime all over again. So bring on the breast, bottle, pacifier, music box — all the ingredients of the original bedtime scenario.

Great bedtime rituals avoid this fallout. With a great ritual, your child falls asleep naturally, without adult interference. This means that when he briefly awakens during the normal sleep       cycle, he’ll feel content and safe and be able to fall back asleep without the help of a grown-up. He’ll regard it as normal to do so, because that is how he went to sleep in the first place. This way, you’ll all be getting an uninterrupted, good night’s sleep, which is best for everyone.

A sleep-deprived adult is often not quite with it — impatient, clumsy, and zombielike. Adults in this state not only can trigger terrible accidents (forgetting to put down the crib rail; leaving the baby on the changing table before returning to bed; falling asleep in a bad position and smothering the baby), but can also become chronically irritable, which of course the baby will sense. A baby who senses that his caretaker is irritable will feel unsafe and abnormal and will likely cry, or worse, scream, for unbelievable lengths of time. You can see how this can become a vicious cycle.

How to Create a Great Bedtime Ritual

Here are some guidelines for creating great bedtime rituals:

Between two and four months of age start putting your baby into the crib, bassinet, or onto the family bed while still slightly awake, and after, not during, a feeding. He will fall asleep naturally, without being “put to sleep” while being held, nursed, bottle-fed, or sucking on a pacifier, and it will begin to feel normal for him to fall asleep on his own.
Find a “sleepy song” that all the loving adults, no matter how vocally limited, can sing. The sleepy song should be the last grown-up step in the bedtime ritual, a signal to the baby that it’s time to fall asleep. The song should be slow and calm, with a very restricted range of pitch, something that the adult can get through over and over again as the baby calms down and relaxes. “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” is a good one — though likely to put the singer to sleep more rapidly than the baby!
Music: Using a CD, music box, or other type of technically generated music player is not the best idea as it’s likely to backfire at some point if it breaks, is lost, or the power goes out — which could mean a long, long night!
As the baby matures, add more steps to the bedtime ritual, always performing them in the same order and always ending with the sleepy song. For instance, by eighteen months, the sequence might be: bath, diaper and pajamas, bedtime book, sleepy song. By three, two of the steps need to be potty and drink of water. If you’re including prayers, they can come right before the sleepy song.
Make sure your child gets enough physical and social activity during the active hours of the day so he’s tired enough to sleep when bedtime comes. More daytime naps than appropriate or TV watching as a substitute for play can make all your bedtime efforts go for naught.
Make the two hours before bed calm, low-key, and cozy. It’s not a good time for bouncing, running, chasing, screaming, or playing flying baby!
Finally, there’s the bedtime story and the night-light to consider.

Bedtime Stories: For children under a year, of course, reading aloud means admiring how well they’re chewing on the cloth or cardboard pages. Toward the end of the second year, it means letting them turn the pages, while you say a few admiring words about the pictures as they fly by. Only at around three will “reading aloud” take on its typical definition — at about the same time they ask you what job you had when you worked on the railroad!

As for books that reassure children about monsters and things under the bed, I’d wait until the child gives voice to such a fear first. No sense putting ideas in their heads. Just don’t say goodnight to the Green Oozy Thing in the closet on your way out.

Night-Lights: For young babies, a soft simple glow is ideal, as anything too interesting may keep them awake. Night-lights at this age are mostly for adults, so that they don’t get lost while checking on the baby in the wee hours.

For children who are two and older, night-lights can start to be interesting, a way of telling your child, in the nicest possible way, that “Yes, now it is going to be dark in here.” Some of the more creative lights can remain a favorite for years — for instance, one that emits a pattern all over the ceiling and walls, imitating a starry sky, complete with constellations.

And here is the moral in this last anecdote: Try hard to keep up some kind of bedtime ritual until your child is fully grown up and moved out — or at least until high school! It’s a great way — and sometimes the only way — to stay in touch and keep things normal.
© Dr. Laura Nathanson, author of The Portable Pediatrician

Author Bio
Dr. Laura Nathanson is the author of The Portable Pediatrician, as well as several other books. She has practiced pediatrics for more than thirty years, is board certified in pediatrics and peri-neonatology, and has been consistently listed in The Best Doctors in America. For more information please visit, and follow the author on Facebook

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