When my son was a baby, he had a perfect little bedtime routine. A soothing bath with songs, a massage, pajamas, feeding, and 3 stories (always ending with The Going to Bed Book)—it was a carefully crafted 30-minute sequence of events, like an example you might see in a parenting book. We protected it, just so every night, and we thought it had to be this way.
And then my daughter was born. All of a sudden, I was soaping my son in the bath with a small, burping baby over my shoulder, or trying to read to him “quietly” before bed while nursing a fussy baby in the middle of the witching hour. Having a second child had shaken up all the family routines, including the ones we so cherished before bedtime. One set of needs had sprouted into two equally demanding sets—often pulling me in opposite directions.
I worried that my daughter’s bedtime routine—if you could even call it that—looked sad in comparison to the Cadillac of routines my son had. No infant massage, no books before bed—we just didn’t have time for it. I fed her, put her pajamas on, asked my son to say “goodnight” to her, put her in the crib, and walked out.
But here was the interesting part: she slept very well. And one night I started to understand why.
I was carrying her into the bedroom, just as I’d done dozens of nights before. I’d toted her around the whole evening as I took care of my son, and she’d seemed fully awake. But as I softly turned the handle to close the door behind me—she yawned.
The next night, the same thing happened: I walked into the room, closed the door, and she yawned.
It became a point of amazement in the house. One night while my dad was visiting, I told him to come in the bedroom. She hadn’t been yawning leading up to this point in the evening. “Watch this,” I said. “She’s going to yawn.” “She doesn’t look tired,” remarked my dad. But sure enough, on cue with the sound of the door handle, she stretched her tiny mouth and rubbed her eyes. I popped her in bed and she rolled over and fell asleep.
Here’s what my daughter has helped reinforce for me about bedtime routines:
· Sleep associations are incredibly strong. The repetitive nature of a parent’s exact actions before bed—in my case: talking in a soft voice, my son saying “goodnight”, closing the bedroom door, closing the blinds, and turning on the sound machine in the same order every night—is very powerful. It doesn’t matter that there’s no massage or books (we read every morning instead), what matters is that we created a reliable set of steps before bed that cue her brain and body that it’s time to sleep. As a colleague of mine says, “You could stand on your head as the first step in your bedtime routine, as long as you do it every night.”
· The power of a bedtime routines is not in what you do, but ;how you do it. Just after dinner (around 6:00 p.m.), I play jazz music and turn down the lights in the house (dim lights allow their bodies to shift into sleep-mode). I keep my energy and voice calmer and move more slowly; both my kids pick up on this. That wind-down period starts 15-30 minutes before their actual bedtime routine begins. You can’t go-go-go and then plop your child in bed—the lead up time to sleep is really important.
My daughter is now one-and-a-half, and thankfully the needs and bedtime routines of both kids align. She splashes in the bath, gets on her PJ’s, and brushes her teeth right alongside my son. But still, when he says good night to her and I walk into her room and softly close the door behind me, she yawns. I put her in her crib and she grabs her blankie, rolls over, and drifts off to sleep.