It is widely accepted that a bedtime routine is a positive thing for a child of any age, from infancy through to preschool and beyond. Sleep problems can often be solved with the implication of a calming bedtime routine, and it can be reassuring for the parent to know when bedtime is coming (especially after a particularly exhausting day!).
But what kind of bedtime routine should be instigated, and when? What techniques can we use to help our children distinguish between night and day, and to help them drift off?
Newborns (Up to 3 Months)
Newborn babies have absolutely no concept of night and day; and there is very little point in trying to teach them about it. Newborns have tiny little tummies that need filling frequently, sometimes hourly, and they will spend the majority of their time sleeping in between feeds. A lot of parents find that their newborn will sleep between feeds all day, and then have periods of alertness at night time. This is exhausting, but completely normal and it will pass. At this stage, it is important to tend to their needs quickly, and not to place too much on a consistent bedtime routine. However, if you feel you need some kind of structure to your evenings, there is nothing wrong with employing some techniques to “power down” your household at a certain time. You could start by giving your baby a nice relaxing bath, and then allowing them to have some bare-bottom time on a soft towel afterwards, so they can have a good kick and burn off some energy. Baby massage is a lovely way of relaxing your baby, and is a wonderful way to bond — maybe this is something that daddy could do as part of the bedtime routine?
Most parents like to keep their babies close to them at all times at this tender age, so after the soothing bath/pyjamas/feed, you could make sure the lights in the living room are dimmed and the TV quiet, in order to create a relaxing atmosphere for sleep. Then, you can snuggle your baby with you on the settee, or let them sleep in the pram or the basket/bassinette. Your newborn probably won’t pay any attention to any of this; if he is a night owl at this stage, your lovingly crafted bedtime routine isn’t likely to have much impact. However, it may well help him settle down if he is colicky, and it will certainly help you feel a little calmer within the chaos that is the first few weeks of new parenthood.
3 Months Old and Beyond
At this age, babies are a little more receptive to calming bedtime techniques. They are far more aware of the world around them, and are therefore more susceptible to outside stimulation that could stop them from drifting off to sleep. A lot of babies will have started slotting into their own natural schedule of feeds and sleeps by this age (although not all of them do!), and therefore you can start to work with their emerging rhythm to create a daily routine that keeps you all happy.
There are lots of ways you can help your little angel figure out the difference between night and day. One important thing is to keep the ambience in the rooms in which the bedtime routine is carried out as calm as possible. You could light candles in the bathroom during the bedtime bath (my son was always transfixed by a flickering flame), have soft lamp light in the bedroom and make sure the curtains are closed. Keep the rooms quiet and your voices low; you don’t want to over-stimulate your baby. Choose a time of the evening at which your baby is tired, but not exhausted. This time could change a little from day to day, so prepare to be flexible!
Here is a loose example of a good bedtime routine, to give you an idea of what you could do:
- Nice relaxing bath with low lights and very little stimulation — this could be a good opportunity to get in the bath with your little one; skin to skin contact is very calming for babies.
- A gentle massage with organic sunflower oil, followed by putting nightclothes on. Make sure the room is warm enough for a slippery naked baby!
- Read stories — you may not think your baby understands, but it’s been proven that they understand language far before they can speak. Either way, they will thoroughly enjoy listening to the sound of your voice.
- Sing a few lullabies and snuggle.
- Feed, and then off to sleep! If you don’t wish to feed your baby to sleep, it would be wise to move this step to an earlier point in the bedtime routine.
When it comes to deciding how you will settle your baby off to sleep, it really is a matter of personal opinion. It is perfectly normal, acceptable and healthy to feed your baby to sleep — a lot of people will say you are creating a rod for your own back, but a bedtime feed is the most natural way to settle your child — not a ‘bad habit’ that must be broken. Breast milk stimulates the production of hormones that make both mother and child sleepy, so if you wish to lay with your baby and nurse him off to sleep (and perhaps have a little doze yourself), do so and enjoy it immensely. However, if you don’t wish to feed your baby to sleep, that’s fine too. My son used to enjoy cuddling up to me like a little bug, resting his head on my chest, and would fall asleep quickly. The upright position allowed me to burp him effectively and once that gas was out, I could lay him down gently in the cot and make a swift exit! It’s all about finding what is best for you. Some babies genuinely prefer to be left alone to fall asleep; I haven’t met very many of them but they certainly do exist! Experiment, and find what is best for you and your little one. Remember the golden rule – if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
I would love to read your contributions to this topic! What do you do to help your baby drift off to the land of nod? What does your bedtime routine look like? At what age did you start giving your baby a regular bedtime?