How to Set Up a Bedtime Routine to Really Help Your Child Sleep

I think we all have these sweet visions of rocking and cuddling our toddler to sleep and laying him down gently in his bed as sweet bedtime music plays in the background, sending him off into a deep and prolonged sleep.  Why does it seem then that the mere mention of the word sleep seems to cue total and utter chaos?

Does the thought of bedtime make you tense and nervous?  

Are you feeling like you have no control at all over the chaos that is bedtime?  

How do you restore order to the chaos?  Where do you even begin?

The best place to begin is with structure and your child relies so heavily on you to provide this for him.  Your child will become tense, irritable, and even unruly when he lacks the security of a solid bedtime routine to anchor him.  There is something very calming and soothing to him when you provide a simple, yet predictable order of events before bedtime. It allows him to relax, knowing where his limits are and that life is orderly and predictable.  

But how do you provide this structure that your child so desperately needs?  Let’s take a closer look . . .

How to Set Up a Bedtime Routine to Really Help Your Child Sleep

  • Set the stage.  Planning the bedtime routine starts long before bedtime itself.  All screens should be off at least 2 hours before starting any sort of bedtime routine.  Also ensure that your child has had at least one hour of active play (i.e. running around outside, playground, etc.).   To ensure optimal conditions for sleep, make your child’s room as dark as possible. Turn off all night lights and any electronics as even the slightest amount of light can adversely affect the quality of your child’s sleep.  If you’re not convinced, I encourage you to check out this interesting article
  • Plan out the Steps in the Routine.  Figure out what you want to include in your bedtime routine.  What will all of the different components be? Do you want to include a bath every night?  Is story time a part of your evening ritual? Some simple massage? It really is helpful to have at least a few steps in the routine so that your child can transition more gradually from the waking world to the sleeping one.  If your child is able and willing to, you should include him in the planning. Giving him control over the routine will create more buy-in when it comes to actually doing it.
  • Make a simple visual schedule using pictures.  You have several options here.  You can make your own by taking pictures of your child doing all of the steps in the routine (i.e. brushing teeth, putting on PJs, etc.).  If you just don’t feel that you have the time, you can always find ready-made picture cards online through a simple search for “bedtime routine pictures”.  Heck, you can even do simple line drawings! It doesn’t have to be fancy. Once you have pictures for all of the steps in the routine, place them in an order from either left to right or from top to bottom in a place where your child can see them. 
  • Make an object schedule.  Now, many of your kids will do just fine with a picture schedule, but many of you may have kids that are not able to understand the symbolism of pictures and may need something more concrete like an object schedule.  You can do the same set up with the picture schedule above, but instead of pictures, use objects that relate to each activity in the routine to represent the different steps. You could use a toothbrush, rubber duck (for bath time), piece of blanket (for bed), etc.  You can affix the items with tape or Velcro (if you have some) and refer to the objects just as you would the pictures.
  • Use Transition Objects.  Another way to simplify the schedule even further is to use what are called “transition objects” (which is nothing more than a small object that is used to represent the next step in the routine to cue your child as to what happens next).  You can use all of the objects you would have used for the object schedule and give the object to your child right before guiding them to do what is next in the routine. So, if you are about to ask him to take a bath, you could give him a bar of soap or his favorite bath toy while announcing “bath time” and then guiding him to the bathroom.  When it is time to transition to the next part of the routine, simply hand him the object related to that activity which he can then carry to the place where that would happen. I recommend keeping all of the objects in a small container so that they stay together.
  • Teach the Routine.  Once you have your chosen schedule in place, teach the routine to your child and then let it be the boss.  If your child resists the routine that you have established, refer him back to the schedule, simply by pointing to the picture or object.  If your child continues to resist, you may have to get creative (and playful!) and offer to hop or fly him to the next step in the routine.  Offering playful choices that get him to go to the next activity, but keeping things light and playful can be very helpful in keeping you out of the rut of power struggles and resistance.
  • Focus on connection.  As with all aspects of parenting that we talk about here, connection is key.  Make it your focus as you wind things down toward sleep. For some of you, this might be snuggling with your child, for others this may just be sitting near him with a gentle hand on his shoulder or simply being near without touching.  Work for those smiles and laughs to keep the spark of connection alive through simple songs or fingerplays as you do each step. Your connection will also help calm him (and YOU) as you enjoy the time together.

So remember, plan ahead of time, decide what you want to include, make it visual, let the routine be the boss, and focus on connection.  We all know that bedtime can be a nightmare before it even gets started, but if you take the time to develop some structure and routine, then it can turn what used to be a source of frustration into a wellspring of connection and bonding between you and your child.

Are you looking for more support?   Even with all of these ideas in place, you may still find yourself struggling.  You do not have to do this alone and I am here to support you. Click here if you want to schedule a time to chat.  

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

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