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How to Develop a Bedtime Routine

What do you do before you go to bed? I’m sure you have a routine and you do the same things almost every night. Today’s topic is all about how to develop a bedtime routine for kids. I was really rigid about my daughter’s bedtime routine when she was young. She’s ten now, and she still does relatively the same things before bed that she did when she was three. And in fact, right before she goes to sleep, she has a line that she always needs to say. Eight years later, she still does it. And if she doesn’t say that line, it’s like she can’t go to sleep. 

I think that that’s really the key to a good bedtime routine. When my kids were little I was militant about bedtime. I wasn’t yet a behavior analyst, but I had to keep the structure for the sake of my sanity. Because if they didn’t go to bed at seven o’clock, there was just no hope. So I learned that it was consistency and routines. As long as you kept doing them every single day. Some days are easy. Some days were hard, but having those things really create, at the end of the day, a positive bedtime routine. 

And those bedtime routines can be anything. It could be a rough and tumble play period, reading a book, doing some deep breathing, or just some cuddles. It could be a whole bunch of different things. 

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How to Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine

So to start you’ll want to break down the steps of the bedtime routine. What’s doable for you? I didn’t try to put all three kids to bed at the same time. We’d spend about 20 minutes with each child and they would get to put on their pajamas, drink their milk, read a story, and we would sing a song. It was the same routine every day and at the same time. And we’d go through the kids one at a time so that the routine also became a positive experience where they got to spend time with us. 

I hear so many stories from parents who talk about bedtime as being this nightmare of an experience. And I’m sure it’s a nightmare for the kid, too. We need to try to take back control of that routine and make it positive. I’m not talking about it being games and prizes and rewards and things like that. You can put something fun like that at the end of the routine. But even just spending time together and making it a bit of a positive experience so that they calm down. Because the goal of that routine is that by the end of it, they’re ready for bed. I think we all need to be in a good space to be ready for bed. 

That means calm and that means attended to. They don’t need to get out of bed every two minutes because they need a drink, a hug, a kiss or they need to find their favorite stuffed animal. And if we make sure to just pump them up with all those good things in that routine, then there won’t be a need for that. 

How to Establish a Bedtime Routine

It really comes down to predictability as well. When you’re developing this routine, you’ll think about it maybe with a partner, and write it all down. Have all of the steps that are doable for you. They don’t need to be in order when you’re planning this. You just brainstorm something on paper. “Okay, I can read books, I can sing songs, I can tickle.” And also, “I can’t do this. It’s not doable for me at this time.” Then once you’ve got your brainstormed ideas, if your child is old enough, you could ask them, “Do you want to do this?” 

Probably at the beginning, just pick two or three things and keep it to about 30 minutes or less. You don’t need this bedtime routine going on for an hour or two. Typically the activities go from more exciting activities to calming activities. Your whole goal with this is to be calm and ready for sleep by the end. So, if you’re having a rough and tumble at the end of the day, you don’t want to put that immediately before bed. You probably want to have that three steps before bed. 

Why a Bedtime Routine is Important

If you think about what you do before bed, you will probably find that you have a similar routine. We don’t just fall into bed at the end of the day and fall asleep. We probably have to get changed or shower. Read a book, or talk to your spouse. Whatever kind of routine you’ve developed, you’ve created that so that you can calm down and be ready for sleep. Screens are not the best thing for all of us before we go to bed, and we all fall into that trap. But keeping screens out of your bedtime routine for your child would be ideal. 

Develop some other preferred activities that you can do together. Even if screens are part of it, maybe at the beginning. And then towards the end, do something to fade that out, like reading a book or singing a song or talking to each other. But keep that routine consistent.

Some nights will go really smoothly and they’ll be in bed at their bedtime. And some nights won’t. But I think it’s important to remember on those nights that aren’t going so smoothly, to just be as consistent as possible. Stick to the routine, keep reading the book, and keep putting on their pajamas. Just remind them of what the expectations are, and stick to the routine as much as possible. 

How Long Does it Take to Develop a Sleep Schedule?

I’ve heard that it takes 21 days to make a habit. Whether that’s true or not, I’m not sure. But it does seem to be about that three-week period when kids are like, “Oh, okay, I got this. This is what we’re doing now.” 

In fact, in the beginning, I actually had a visual schedule. Even if you just write out a text schedule so it’s a visual reminder for you to keep going with that routine. And typically after you do this for a while, kids ask for it. The more you do it, the more consistent you are, it’ll get there. And this can start as young as possible. If you’re wondering when to start a bedtime routine, I started with my kids when they were babies. But if your child is a little bit older, it’s not too late. I think still starting to get into that routine is a good habit to get into.

So in summary, we talked about how to develop a bedtime routine and make it as consistent as possible. If you can’t stick to it every night, tomorrow’s another day. Do your best to be as consistent as you possibly can. Keep the routine to under 30 minutes, and make sure that you put the more relaxing activities towards the end of the schedule because your end goal is being ready for sleep. 

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