When was the last time you got a great night’s sleep? It’s the number one issue for parents of young children. Partly because children’s sleep cycles are different from our own. Changing your child’s sleep habits takes time and patience. The one consistent research finding is that a bedtime routine not only helps kids get ready for bed easier but also, helps them sleep longer and better.
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 addition night that the bedtime routine was used, the better the quality of sleep for the child.
In other words, 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. Each one of these tips not only bolsters your bedtime routine but can foster social, emotional and cognitive development as well.
A Better Bedtime Routine
Involve Your Child in the Routine
Create a bedtime routine chart or make up a bedtime routine song. The Daniel Tiger book , app, and a plush toy with phrases have a goodnight song that kids love. Having a chart or singing a song helps your child to be involved with the routine. It isn’t about you telling them what to do instead, it is the fun song or chart we follow.
As you go through the steps of putting on PJs, brushing teeth, and so forth, ask your child “What’s next?” Help them remember by pointing to the chart or singing the song. Your child will be excited to remember the next steps and getting ready for bed will feel like a game. If you are still having trouble getting through the steps try a listening helper.
How does this nurture your child’s development beyond bedtime?
With a clear routine, your child will be able to predict what will happen next and maybe even initiate what happens next. This empowers children and gives them a sense of mastery. All of which leads to a feeling of security and builds a child’s confidence. One more way to help you child have mastery over bedtime is to invest in a toddler clock which you can set to change color when bedtime has arrived.
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.
Have you ever had your child tell you they can’t stop crying and you say “breathe” and they say “I can’t!” If you incorporate relaxation into bedtime you can help them recall how that feels, “Remember when we get ready for bed and we start our relaxation? Remember how that feels in your body? Let’s try that now.” Then you can rub their backs and shoulders until they can calm down.
An alternative to massage is to teach them progressive muscle relaxation. 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 “no more jumping and dancing today time for sleep,” and I we do some deep breathing. Here are some free guided relaxation scripts from Green Child Magazine.
Again, the benefits are two-fold. Progressive muscle relaxation can promote deeper and better quality sleep, which leads to better daytime behavior. Also, it helps your child learn to relax. After doing night relaxation and breathing, they will be able to breathe to calm down with some prompting from you.
Read a Story
In many ways, this last tip is less about better sleep and more about boosting your child’s cognitive development. Children who are read to more at home have levels of brain activation compared to children who are read to less. Reading does not need to happen as part of the bedtime routine, but it should happen every day. For more on the amazing benefits of reading for cognitive development check out my posts on Making the Most Out of Storytime and Rhyming Books and the Brain.
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.