If you are trying to improve your child’s sleep, establishing a good routine is crucial. Babies, starting as early as four months of age, are highly aware of their environment and their brains are working hard to build connections. By creating a calm, connecting, consistent sleep routine with your baby, you can support them in developing healthy sleep habits.
Have you ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs? Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist studying psychology in the late 1800s. The shimmy of his study was that he would ring a bell and then feed his dogs. Over time, he observed that the dogs would begin to salivate at the sound of the bell. When the bell was rung, they would salivate even when they were not fed. They had developed a powerful neurological connection between the sound of the bell and the anticipation of food coming – so much so that their brains sent signals to their mouths to produce saliva. In a similar way, a consistent routine can help babies and children to have a physiological urge to sleep after their sleep routine.
So, what does a good sleep routine look like? The specific activities of the routine may vary from child to child and at different ages. However, whatever age or personality your child has, the routine will help them the most if it meets their needs for connectedness and calm before sleep.
- CONNECTION. Why does it help a baby or child to feel a sense of connection before they go to sleep? Sleep is a period of separation. A child who feels securely attached to their parent or caregiver will feel more confident going to bed for a nap, or especially at nighttime, because she will not worry about when she gets to see you again. How can you help your child to feel connected to you at bedtime? Maybe they love cuddles, or rocking, or singing, or talking. They might feel most connected through a calm game – like peek-a-boo, a lift-the-flap book, or even a puzzle. If you are not sure what helps your child to feel connected to you, just pick something and try it! Watch how your child responds. If they are engaged, smiling, or snuggling into you, it’s working. If not, try something else! Remember, just because your child doesn’t respond to something (or anything!) one day, doesn’t mean they won’t love it another day. They have moods, just like the rest of us. The one thing that will be the same amongst all children is that they will universally feel more of your love if you put your phone away during their bedtime routine. When you first enter their room, leave your phone in the hallway or another place in your home.
- CALMING. The second job of your sleep routine is to help your child to calm down enough to be ready to go to sleep when you leave the room. Any kind of screen, even an electronic book will be highly stimulating to your child and should be avoided during the sleep routine, and even better, for at least 30 minutes before you even start. If your child likes songs, don’t sing Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen. Stick with Twinkle Twinkle little star, favorite hymns, or other calming tunes. If your child likes books, avoid exciting or scary stories and stick to simple, sweet little stories that will help them feel peaceful and ready to snuggle into their pillow. If you want to dance with your child before bed, don’t throw them into the air or spin them around by their arms. Sway gently and hold them close. Like with connection, you will be able to tell how your child feels about the activities you do together by watching their response.
- CONSISTENT. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? If you want reliable results, be reliable! You may notice your child start to rub their eyes and yawn as soon as you begin their familiar routine. Children are fast learners and can start to build a sleepy association between their routine and sleeping in as little as three days. Always start and finish your child’s sleep routine in the same place they sleep- with the exception of a bath- if you choose to include that as part of your routine (Just like darkness triggers the release of melatonin in the brain because it signals “nighttime now”, a bath can help too. When your child exits the warm bath tub they will experience a drop in temperature – another “nighttime now” signal to the brain). Always start to begin your routine within the same 30 minutes each day. Always read the same number of stories, sing the same number of songs, play the same number of games- you get the idea. Don’t draw out the routine. After a bath and possibly a bottle or nursing session, the routine should take 15-20 minutes, from start to finish.
A consistent, calming, connecting sleep routine isn’t just great for your child’s sleep, it can be an important way to strengthen your relationship with your child each day- and just enjoy being together. And don’t forget, you’re not alone! If you have any questions or would even like to chat, please don’t hesitate to reach out.