Inside: How to build a better bedtime routine for your child that is proven to help kids go to sleep earlier, sleep longer, and have less nightly wake-ups.
Sleep is by far the number one issue for parents of young children. Children seem to never sleep, partly because children’s sleep cycles are so different from our own.
There is a lot of research out there on sleep and most of it is messy and hard to understand.
But the one consistent research finding is that having a bedtime routine not only helps makes bedtime easier but also helps them sleep longer and better.
Proven Benefits of a Bedtime Routine
In a large study across several countries, researchers found that having a consistent bedtime routine is directly related to better sleep: Children who had a regular bedtime routine fell asleep faster, had an earlier bedtime, had fewer night wakings and slept longer than children who did not have a regular bedtime routine!
The relationship between having a bedtime routine and sleep was dose-dependent, meaning that the younger the child was when the routine was started and for each additional night that the bedtime routine was used, the better the quality of sleep for the child.
In other words, the earlier you start and the longer you have a bedtime routine = Better (longer) Sleep for everyone!
The benefits of a good bedtime routine spill over into other aspects of your child’s life as well. Research shows that a consistent bedtime routine benefits parent-child attachment, language development, and emotion and behavioral regulation.
Four (Science-Backed) Tips for A Better Bedtime Routine For Your Child
1. Make Your Bedtime Routine Consistent
Consistency is the number one thing that will improve your child’s sleep.
What steps you do are important — but the most important thing is doing it consistently. Do the steps in the same order and have the same 3 to 4 steps every night. For example, bath, massage, story, and song.
Having a consistent bedtime routine will help when other things in life are not consistent. For example, when you go on vacation or when school begins — if you continue to do the same four things before bed this create an anchoring point in your child’s day.
An anchor is a moment that your child knows they can count on — a moment of connection with you that they know will be there no matter how crazy life can get.
During your transition to a new routine or at times in your child’s life, they may show more anxiety and resistance at bedtime. Don’t miss the bonus section at the end of this post on what to try when your child has anxiety at bedtime.
2. Start Your Child’s Bedtime Routine at the Right Time (and earlier than you think)
This is probably the second most important step. If you can consistently get your kids down at the right time your bedtime battles will dimish greatly.
So, what is the right time? The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) issued guidelines based on a review of the research. These guidelines were also endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatricians. Of course, children’s needs vary — which is why there is a range of times here.
In this chart I’ve used 6:30 am as an example for wake-time so you can see just how early kids need to get to bed.
Has your 3-year-old ever fallen asleep at 5:30 pm and slept through the whole night? If they are no longer taking a nap and they are waking up between 5:30 and 6:30 am, then they will need an early bedtime. You can see why with this chart. (Of course, a growth spurt could also be to blame).
It’s easy to forget that children’s circadian rhythms and sleep needs are completely different from our own. Their needs will fluctuate a bit as they go in and out of growth spurts — but generally, you’ll know if you have a kid at the high or low end of this.
And if you have a kid who resists bedtime and can’t settle, then most likely, they need more sleep than they are currently getting.
Children who get enough sleep have better attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotion regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health. On the other hand, routinely not getting enough sleep is associated with depression, emotional and mental disorders, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and self-injuries.
It is important not to underestimate the importance of sleep at all ages. Sleep is crucial for development.
Hormonal changes for puberty begin two to three years before outward changes occur — and only during sleep. Disrupted or poor sleep for 8-year-olds can lead to depression and other issues 4 to 5 years later.
So, how do I choose the right time for my child?
Is your child having problems falling asleep? Then they likely need more sleep. Move their bedtime up by 20 minutes for a week and see what happens. No changes? Move it up by another 20 minutes.
Use the guide above to estimate what time your child may need to go to bed, it may be much earlier than you think. (And relatedly — if you have a picky eater, try moving dinnertime up quite a bit as well. We started eating dinner at 4:30 and my son was stuffing quinoa with black beans tostadas with slaw in his mouth! You would never see him do that at 6 pm.)
3. Keep Your Child’s Bedtime Routine Short and Sweet
One thing I often hear from parents who are struggling to get their kids to bed is just how hard they are working at it — “We wind down for an hour of quiet play, then we have a relaxing bath, and then we read, sing a song…” (There is such a thing as trying too hard when it comes to bedtime routines.
Too much of a routine can have the opposite effect and create more anxiousness.
Your bedtime routine, whatever it is, should be short and sweet. The key is consistency. Dr. Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., pediatric sleep researcher, recommends that families chose 3 to 4 activities to do in the same order every night, like bath, massage, reading, lullabies.
I read many books and research articles about sleep when my son was younger. It is a dense topic and one we don’t know enough about. But one thing I did learn is for children that sleep begets sleep.
If a child is overtired, they will have a very difficult time settling down for sleep. A child’s “sleep bucket” must be full in order for them to fall asleep easily.
Nicole Weeks, Ph.D. does an excellent job of describing this in her video series: Why won’t my child sleep – the Bucket.
The Sleep Bucket
4. What to Include in Your Bedtime Routine
1. Bedtime Bath
Dr. Jodi Mindell says that the more data she sees the more convinced she is that baths are a good component to include in a bedtime routine.
Baths are multi-sensory and affect core body temperature, both of which can be a signal to the body to wind-down.
2. Bedtime Massage
In one study, toddlers were either read a story or given a 15-minute massage before bedtime by their parents for one month. The children who were massaged fell asleep faster and engaged in fewer bedtime stall tactics than did the children who were read stories.
The benefits of a nightly massage go beyond bedtime. In that same study when the children were observed during the day, they were more alert, showed greater positive emotions, and were more active than the children who were read a bedtime story.
I think massage works in two ways. First, you are helping your child’s relatively immature nervous system to wind down and that leads to better sleep, which leads to a happier and more alert child during the day. But also, you are training your child on how to relax their body. This is such an important skill for emotion regulation.
3. Bedtime Stories
Reading stories together may be less about better sleep and more about boosting your child’s cognitive development. I would argue, though, that including a bedtime story as part of your bedtime routine is not only about cognitive and brain development. Whether you read a story or tell a story, that cultural ritual of stories before going to bed becomes a special time for parent and child to share something together.
Quiet moments are something we need in our busy schedules and sharing a story is a great way to bond. It is also a way to engage your child’s mind before bed — it gives them something to think about as they drift off to sleep. Reading a bedtime story will instill a love of reading in your child and give them a positive habit that can stick with them throughout life.
Here are our Favorite Relaxing Bedtime Stories
Books are listed in order from books for younger kids to books for older kids.
Bedtime (Toddler Tools)Sleepy Little Yoga: A Toddler’s Sleepy Book of YogaDream Animals: A Bedtime JourneyIt’s Time to Sleep, My LoveI’ll See You in the MorningA Book of SleepGood Night, FairiesGood People EverywhereGood Night Yoga: A Pose-by-Pose Bedtime StoryGoodnight Songs: Illustrated by Twelve Award-Winning Picture Book ArtistsA Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children
4. Bedtime Lullabies
Research with premature infants has shown that parent-sung lullabies can increase oxygen levels and decrease measures of stress in both baby and mothers.
In one study, babies in the lullaby condition were able to leave the hospital three days earlier than those in the control condition.
We have been singing to our children for centuries. The is something soothing about lullabies for both the parent and the child.
The Bedtime Routine– The Formula
That’s it — 4 main components (Bath, Massage, Reading, and Lullaby) and the bedtime routine is done. Here is an example of what it might look like:
Head upstairs together. Give your child a bath (10-15 minutes). Brush teeth. Put on Pjs. Lay your child down in the bed and put lotion on them while doing a relaxing massage (10-15 minutes). Read a favorite relaxing storybook. (5 minutes) Turn off the light. Sing a lullaby or two (5 minutes). Goodnight.
All in all that comes to about 30 to 45 minutes. Max– one hour. Once your child realizes they can count on this time and they are getting to bed earlier so their sleep bucket is full, the bedtime routine becomes more streamlined.
Do these four things every night, in the same order, at an earlier bedtime and with time, your child’s sleep will improve.
Bonus: What to Try When Your Child Has Anxiety at Bedtime
During the transition to a more consistent routine or at times in your child’s life that they have a lot going on, they may start to resist the routine or have trouble settling down.
Night time is a normal time to think about our worries. As parents, we do this too. When the day slows down and we lay down to sleep, sometimes in the quietness, we begin to notice our worries.
The same happens for children too. The difference is, they may not be able to say, “Hey Mom, I’m stressed.” Instead, they say — “don’t leave,” “stay with me,” “I can’t sleep.”
Here are some tips for when your child is having an extra hard time winding down.
Note: If you think your child has a larger issue with anxiety that is affecting their daily functioning (sleeping, eating, etc.) please consult with your health professional. These tips are for educational use only, not to treat or diagnose mental health issues. See my resource page for a “How to find therapist tool.”
1. Add-in Silly-Time
Kids destress through play. Especially silly play. Before bath time, add in a silly running around, hide and seek, a little crazy time where your kids end up laughing and laughing. Then do bath, massage, story, and lullaby as usual.
2. Add-in Parent-Special Time
Sometimes kids are feeling disconnected from parents –especially when they are at school all day and you are at work. After bathtime, add in a 10-minute time where you reconnect. Call it “Our special time” and let your child talk and be an active listener. Some ideas to get the conversation flowing: ask them what the three best parts of their day were and tell them three things you love about them. For more ideas, check out Big Life Journal’s Positivity and Connection Kit (affiliate link).
3. Add-in Progressive Relaxation
This step might take the place of the song or the massage.
I do an abbreviated version of this with my 4-year-old each night. I focus on his arms and legs being heavy and warm, I incorporate a little bit about what he has done that day “Your arms are heavy and warm, no more drawing today, no more playing with Lego. Just resting and growing. Your legs are heavy and warm, they feel relaxed. No more jumping and dancing today time for sleep.”
Here are some free guided relaxation scripts from Green Child Magazine.
4. Change- Up Story Time with Dream Starters
As much as I like to say consistency is the most important thing, sometimes kids get caught up in their own imaginations. Talking about what your child can dream about once you turn off the light can help channel their overactive imaginations into a land of dreams.
- Try telling a story together and talk about how it can become a dream. We use these beautiful story starters as prompts.
- Try a story app. While I generally try to stay away from digital devices, we have had luck with this app, Moshi Twilight Sleep Stories: Calm Bedtime App.
5. Add in a Snack
Sometimes kids are hungry — especially when they are going through a growth spurt. And low blood sugar can feel a lot like anxiety.
If your child starts asking for a snack, starting adding in one preemptively. We do ours after a bath. We bring it upstairs and my son reads to himself while having his snack. Then it’s brush teeth, massage, story, and song.