When it’s time to go to sleep at night, you probably don’t just hop into bed in the clothes you wore all day and turn out the light. Whether you realize it or not, you follow a routine — brush your teeth, wash your face, change into pajamas and maybe read for a little while before lights out. Like you, your baby can benefit from a consistent and predictable bedtime routine.
A baby bedtime routine signals to your little one that it’s time to wind down and go to sleep. The best routine works with your family's schedule and can be implemented consistently, bridging the transition from busy day to tranquil night. These moments may become the coziest and calmest you spend with your child every day.
When should you start a bedtime routine for baby?
Don't pressure yourself to impose a bedtime routine as soon as you get home from the hospital with your newborn. After all, he has to recover from the effort of being born — and so do you! Plus, newborns don’t have enough of a sense of day and night to have any predictable patterns.
But when your baby is around 6 to 8 weeks of age, you can try starting it. It should be very short at first — maybe just a cuddly feeding and a brief reading of a book.
Why a baby bedtime routine is important
Bedtime routines reinforce babies' natural circadian rhythms, helping teach them the difference between day and night. Later on, a baby bedtime routine helps little ones to slow down and prepare mentally for bedtime.
A regular bedtime ritual creates a sense of comfort that can be especially helpful during trying sleep periods for you and your baby, such as when you're sleep training (which you can try between 4 and 6 months old) or when your baby is going through a sleep regression.
A consistent sleep routine helps:
- Your baby fall asleep. A calming bedtime ritual that follows a predictable pattern every night gives your baby a heads-up that it's time to wind down and prepare for sleep, which in turn helps him to nod off.
- Your baby stay asleep. Sleep regressions — where babies have a hard time falling or staying asleep — are normal throughout the first year and beyond. Having a bedtime routine in place offers comfort that can help your baby get through these phases.
- Your baby learn. Sleep is important for his development too. Getting quality Zzzs helps your baby consolidate the many lessons he learned during the day to memory.
- You to relax. A bedtime routine is a wonderful way to bond with your little one at the end of a long day, and it just might make evenings more relaxing for you too.
Sleep is undoubtedly one of the bigger challenges of your baby's first year. But establishing a baby bedtime routine early on will help both you and your baby to sleep more soundly for years to come.
The best bedtime routine for baby
There is no one-size-fits-all bedtime routine that works for every baby. Try to be flexible and find what suits both you and your baby. Here's an example of a bedtime routine that works for many families:
- A soothing bath. Warm water has sleep-inducing powers. Try incorporating a mild soap or lotion with chamomile or lavender into your baby's bathtime for extra relaxation. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doesn't recommend bathing newborns and babies every night, however, because it can dry out their delicate, sensitive skin.
- A feed with cuddles. A nightcap fills your baby's tank before the night ahead. If he has any teeth, brush them (and wipe his gums) when you’re done. And if your baby tends to fall asleep during feedings, push up this part of the routine up to before the bath.
- Books. Settle down into your glider or rocking chair and read a favorite book in a quiet, calm voice.
- Gentle infant massage. Research suggests that babies who get a rub-down before bedtime produce more of the hormone melatonin, which helps them sleep.
- Lullabies. A soft song or lullaby sets the stage for sleep. Save the tickle monster and other rougher games for earlier in the day.
- White noise. The uterus is a pretty noisy place between your breathing and gurgling stomach — which is why many infants find white noise or a musical mobile soothing at bedtime.
- A few parting words. Say some comforting, predictable words to your baby before leaving the room, like "Goodnight, I love you," with a stroke on the cheek and a kiss on the head.
Tips for establishing a baby bedtime routine
Time it right
Keep a log of your baby's sleep patterns, noting the longest sleep stretch of the night. Remember, you'll be lucky if your baby sleeps five or six hours in a row during the early months. Get to know your baby’s sleep cues, which often involve rubbing his eyes or yawning, as you’ll want to put your baby to bed when he’s sleepy but not overtired.
As soon as you understand roughly when your baby sleeps for his longest stretch at night, try to time a pre-sleep routine about 30 to 45 minutes in advance of his natural drop-off time. For example, if he tends to sleep his longest stretch from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., start a bedtime routine around 7:15 or 7:30 p.m.
Put your child to sleep in the same place
Most babies fall asleep in their strollers or car seats sometimes. Just aim to consistently put your baby to sleep in his crib at around the same time, even for naps, starting when he's a couple months old. It’s important not only to help your baby sleep more soundly, but also to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
To that end, avoid scheduling errands when it's baby's naptime. If your cutie does fall asleep in the stroller, car seat or swing, be sure to transfer him to the crib as soon as possible.
Create the right atmosphere
Dim the lights, pull the shades down or close the curtains, turn off the TV and put away your phone to set a relaxing tone.
Try to master the drowsy baby drop-off
At the end of your baby’s bedtime routine, put your sleepy little one down while he's drowsy but still awake. That way he’ll get used to falling asleep on his own, not in your arms.
It's true that the drowsy baby tuck-in doesn't work for every infant, but it's well worth attempting. If you’re not successful the first few times, keep at it! Eventually you’ll be rewarded when your baby dozes off all on his own.
Adjust as necessary
At the beginning, your baby's bedtime routine may simply involve snuggles and a lullaby, followed by a quiet bedtime story, before putting him in his crib on the brink of sleep.
Keep in mind that as your baby grows, his needs will change, so try to be flexible and adjust as necessary. For instance, as your baby gets older, bathtime before bed may turn rowdier. In that case, move tubtime to earlier in the routine, leaving the more relaxing strategies, like a story or a baby massage, for closer to bedtime.
Keep it consistent
Regularity is an essential ingredient of a soothing bedtime routine. Consistency breeds comfort, which helps lull your baby into a peaceful sleep.
Create a shorter nap routine
Abbreviating your baby’s nighttime routine for a naptime routine helps reinforce his sleep cues to encourage the transition to dreamland.
Naps are shorter than overnight sleep, so your routine can be too. Take advantage of the sleep associations your baby knows — a story or song — and incorporate them into his naptime routine.