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On The Value of a Bedtime Routine
Daily rituals are a natural part of the way human beings function. They help to establish patterns and clear expectations that bring both comfort and simplicity to the chaos of life. Establishing a consistent bedtime routine will bring these benefits into the life of your child, serve as an important source of peace of mind for you, and lay the foundation for a number of good habits that will contribute significantly to your child’s physical and mental development both now and in the future.
When building your own routine there are numerous options available, allowing you to customize the experience relative to the unique dynamics of your family and the ever-changing needs of each individual child. With our children, after plenty of our own missteps and outright blunders, my wife and I have found the greatest success in a combination of firm consistency moderated by the open recognition that flexibility, while it can't get out of hand, is necessary.
Other than the clear central goal of getting the children to bed peacefully and happily, the bedtime routine has three purposes:
- to calm the children down
- to establish positive habits
- to build relationship between the parents and the children
There are various options available for accomplishing all of these goals that serve a variety of purposes. The trick to successfully building a beneficial routine is to remember that bedtime, when properly structured to address all of these purposes, should become not only a time for calming and quiet but a unique time for bonding and growth as well.
Consider the options carefully, weigh them according to your needs, and be prepared to change them as your child grows.
IMPORTANT NOTE: While this may be obvious to some (it certainly wasn’t to me), if you are truly entering parenting for the first time, do not expect to establish a bedtime routine right away. During the first six weeks of a child’s life, a parent’s concept of day and night are very vague; one bleeds into the other as all things come to center around the hourly needs of the newborn baby. Thankfully, normal life eventually emerges again and the establishment of a bedtime routine actually helps the child to begin recognizing the natural structure of day and night.
- A Firm Starting Time
- Bath Time
- Snack Time
A Firm Starting Time
In order for any calming strategies to work, the first thing that must be set in place is a firm starting time for the bedtime routine. The more activities you include, the more time you will need to set aside. I have read some other articles that try to make arguments as to an ideal routine length. I believe length is too dependent on the individual circumstances for any argument to be valid in all cases. Thus, I feel it’s important to let it take the time it takes—just be sure you have enough and be sure it’s early enough to reserve some time for the parents afterwards!
That said, I do believe that holding firm to the starting time is key. Children have keen body clocks—even more so than adults—and it’s very dangerous to mess with them. The great cataclysmic meltdowns of young children are, in my experience at least, almost always linked to trying to run against a child’s natural clock. This doesn’t mean the child can’t stay up later occasionally, but it must be rare, and keep in mind there are always consequences.
Pick a time and stick to it!
The best way to begin a child’s bedtime routine is with a calm activity that can serve as a signal for winding down. Bath time is a classic and highly effective place to begin. The warm water helps the child to relax and, simply by the nature of the activity, all the running around stops. Bath time is also a wonderful opportunity for quiet play and bonding with both infants and younger children.
As our children grew older, we moved away from bath time because we did not see a need for bathing every single day. We now use snack time as our signal for the beginning of bedtime. Since giving them food is one of the few ways available to get them to sit still, we use it to mark the end of the rambunctious play and provide a chance to sit and talk. For about fifteen minutes, we begin the close of the day with some quiet family conversation. When snack is done, it’s off to the bedrooms for jammies.
Whatever you choose to do to begin your child’s bedtime, be sure it is an activity that brings the energy into focus, preparing the child for the quieter routines that lead to sleep.
NOTE: Be sure to avoid the use of TV at bedtime. While the children look calm from the outside, watching television does not promote the restful state of mind ideal for bedtime.
Good Habits for Mind & Body
- Brushing Teeth
- The Read Aloud
- Music & Song
Current brain research clearly suggests that children’s experiences from birth to three years old are critical to their overall development. For parents, establishing good habits during this period of a child’s life is essential, and the bedtime routine is a great place to start.
Among the very best habits anyone can develop to preserve their physical health is the regular brushing of his or her teeth. In fact, dentists recommend that this process begin as soon as possible—well before the child even has teeth. Massaging the gums with a soft brush and water clears away bacteria and prepares the child for the habit of brushing that becomes essential once teeth appear. This is a simple thing to set in place at bedtime, setting the habit in place for a lifetime.
As a teacher, one of the most common frustrations I hear from my middle school parents is, “My child doesn’t like to read. How can I get them to read more?” The number one solution to this problem is to read to them on a daily basis from the time that they are infants. Of course, this advice is of no use to the parent of a child who is already ten years old. To the parents of infants, however, the opportunity is before you right now.
For this reason, a primary element of the bedtime routine should always be reading aloud to your child from age appropriate books. Even after the child grows and learns to read him or herself, it is still important to read books aloud that are at the upper end of their reading level, giving them exposure to vocabulary and content of ever-growing complexity.
In addition, it is important to interact with your child while reading; don’t just read the words. Talk briefly about what the stories are about and what they mean. Pause occasionally and ask your child to make predictions about where a story will go. Use it as an opportunity for learning and building relationships.
This, combined with making a wide variety of books available to children throughout the day and throughout their lives, will engender and excitement and joy around reading that will never go away.
Music & Song
In addition to being rich with opportunities for fellowship with our kids, brain research also suggests that music is good for the mind. Essentially, the physiological studies of music and the mind are revealing how makes for phenomenal mental exercise.
In addition, singing a song to your child also opens up a unique and significant kind of opportunity for emotional intimacy. What you sing and how well you sing might matter tremendously to the outside world, but they make no difference to your baby. Babies crave only the sound of their parents’ voices and the touch of their hands. For those who “cannot sing,” this is your chance to let go and dive in anyway.
These three simple routines—brushing teeth, reading books, and singing songs—done day after day and year after year over the early course of a child’s development, contribute significantly to developing healthy children with bright and active minds.
Each of the ideas presented so far present opportunities for building relationship with your child. Snack time is wonderful for conversation about the day, bath time is full of fun and play, reading builds imagination and allows for the sharing of ideas, and singing is a unique opportunity for emotional intimacy. We have found the close of bedtime is also a precious time of sharing between mother and daughter, father and son.
Many of our children’s greatest fears and greatest joys come to the surface during the few minutes just before it’s time to sleep. In our family, we fill this time with prayer. If you are not a praying family, then simply fill the time with hugs and words of comfort and love. These moments will create precious memories for both the parents and the children.
All people, and children in particular, thrive on regular schedules and ingrained habits. Establishing a regular bedtime provides parents with an opportunity to shape their children’s habits from their earliest days and build strong and lasting personal connections. In a chaotic world where life comes at all of us far too quickly, bedtime can serve as one of the few consistent foundations of the day.
Helpful Links to Other Resources
- Kids and Bedtime Routines
Whether you have an infant, toddler, kindergartner, or preteen, a good bedtime routine can be the difference between good sleep habits and a lot of sleepless nights. Learn some do's and don'ts of a good bedtime routine for your kids.
- How to Develop Bedtime Routines
Pleasant bedtime routines ease the transition from being awake to being asleep by helping children feel more secure and comfortable about what they can expect at the end of every day. Here's how to create a bedtime routine that works for you and your
- Establishing a bedtime routine with your baby | BabyCenter
Find out when and how to develop a good bedtime routine with your baby.
- ZERO TO THREE: Homepage
ZERO TO THREE is a national nonprofit organization that informs, trains and supports professionals, policymakers and parents in their efforts to improve the lives of infants and toddlers.