Recent studies have shown that children sleep better if they have a regular nightly bedtime routine, with this implemented when a baby is 6 to 8 weeks old.
The study conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine tested over 10,000 mothers from 14 countries. The age ranged from infants, to toddlers and children up to the age of 6. It was discovered that the children who had a consistent bedroom routine slept better than those who did not. They also didn’t wake up as much during the night and slept for longer.
“Creating a bedtime routine for a child is a simple step that every family can do,” says Jodi Mindell, PhD, professor of psychology at Saint Joseph’s University and associate director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who headed up the research. “It can pay off to not only make bedtime easier, but also that a child is likely to sleep better throughout the entire night.”
Getting your child into a sleep routine can seem a daunting prospect, and isn’t always easy, but establishing a soothing and predictable pattern will help your child settle down without fuss at bedtime. It will also help him to developing good sleep patterns as he gets older.
Get started early
It’s important to start a routine when your baby is 6 to 8 weeks old. “Babies don’t like surprises, so it’s very helpful to get your baby into some sort of framework early on,” says child sleep consultant Maryanne Taylor from Child Sleep Works.
Start simply and then gradually build on this routine as your child grows. “A flexible framework makes it easier to read your baby’s cries and helps you tell if he’s getting enough sleep during the day,” says Maryanne. “Sleep breeds sleep, so a baby who fills his ‘sleep tank’ during the day will sleep better at night.”
Create a restful bedroom
Creating a sleep-friendly environment is a vital part of establishing a routine, so make sure the bedroom is set up to encourage snoozing. The room temperature shouldn’t be too hot or too cold, around 16-20°C. It should be quiet, too. “If it’s a room that’s prone to noise from outside, or the rest of the house, try using a white noise machine,” says Maryanne.
“Room darkening shades are also good, especially for daytime naps.” The aim is to indicate it’s sleep time, so a dim light can help while getting ready for bed. “When your baby nears bedtime his body will produce melatonin, the sleep hormone. A dim light helps encourage this and can ease him into bedtime slowly.”
Relax and soothe
Babies will eventually develop their own methods of soothing themselves to sleep, but they need your help to do this initially. Encourage techniques to help your child fall asleep on his own without a ‘crutch’ like being fed or rocked to sleep.
For example, Dr Harvey Karp’s book The Happiest Baby Guide to Sleep (£16.99, HarperBusiness) recommends the five Ss to soothe your baby for the first three months – swaddling, side holding, shushing, swinging and sucking.
Maryanne says, “For babies under 3 or 4 months old, swaddling really helps to soothe them. Try using verbal reassurance or making a ‘shushing’ sound, and some babies like the comfort of being stroked or gently patted on the tummy.” Once you baby is around 3 months old, he will begin to recognise a step-by-step routine as soothing in itself, so make sure the one you follow is consistent.
Simple is best
Start your routine simply and build it up over time. “A nice way to signal that it’s night-time and to start the bedtime routine is a bath. Afterwards, take your baby into the room where he sleeps, which should be warm, dimly lit and calm,” says Maryanne. Then you might like to give him a massage, sing a lullaby, dress him for bed, and either swaddle him if he is under 3 months old or put him in a sleeping bag if he’s older, before you start feeding him.
Adding a book as the final stage of the routine from an early age has lots of advantages. “Reading makes for great bonding time for mum and dad, and it’s part of the routine that can be developed as your baby gets older, so start with a simple age-appropriate book,” says Maryanne. “It also stops your baby developing an association with feeding and falling straight to sleep. You want to avoid this as much as possible, as a baby who needs certain conditions to fall asleep will need the same conditions to get back to sleep when he wakes during the night.”
When your baby is around 6 weeks old, master the ‘drowsy drop-off’ by putting your baby down sleepy, but not asleep, so he gets used to settling in his cot. If you want to use a self-soothing technique, like the ‘cry it out’ method from Dr Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (£12.99, Vermilion) at about 5 to 6 months, then this can be incorporated into the bedtime routine after you have put your baby down for the night.
Create a routine
As your baby grows, you can adapt and expand on the basics of the routine you have established.
For example, make bathtime longer with some games and have a little chat with your baby. But, as Maryanne stresses, “It’s so important to keep the basics the same – the whole point of having a routine is the predictability of it.”