Do Bedtime Routines Really Matter?

18 February 2013

Do Bedtime Routines Really Matter?

What’s all the fuss about?

Well believe it or not a good consistent bedtime routine can make all the difference to getting it right at bedtime.

Sleep clues

Children and babies need sleep clues or sleep triggers to prepare their bodies for sleep and surprisingly adults need them too. Each night before bed adults will follow a simple set of sleep clues without even knowing it; for example, most like to take a shower, watch some TV, read a book or make a hot drink.  Without these we would find it difficult to settle for bed; after all, we are creatures of habit.

This of course applies to babies and children too.  You wouldn’t expect a toddler who has been running around outside to be expected suddenly to settle for bed. By taking your child through a regular bedtime routine by giving them a set of sleep clues each night will help regulate their body clock and enable your child to pick up the clues for sleep. It doesn’t however mean that your whole day has to be routine- focused; not at all, as long as the last half hour of the day remains consistent and calm you will be fine.

Getting the timing right

The timing of the bedtime routine is fundamental to getting it right. It should last no longer than 45 minutes, with 30 minutes being ample. If you start getting your child ready for bed too early the whole procedure can lose focus. This often happens if your child’s routine does not take place in his bedroom. If a child comes downstairs during this time and back into the living area it can often hype him up and then break the bedtime spell. 

Routine recipe

A bath is a very positive way to signal the end of the day and will allow your child the opportunity to wind down.  Head straight for the bedroom once bath time is over and for younger babies a simple massage before bed is often helpful. For younger babies this may only last a few minutes as the bath will have been a tiring experience and he may not tolerate it for long. Once your child is into his bed clothes you can enjoy a story and a cuddle; even babies as young as six months can enjoy looking at a picture book before the final feed. For older children be mindful of how many stories you read and stick to the same amount each night, otherwise you may well fall into the trap of listening to the plea of ‘just one more please’. 

Once your child is snuggled down in bed give a cuddle and a kiss and try to leave the room while your child is still awake. Try not to wait until your child is asleep as this can lead to your child always expecting you to be there and may cause future sleep problems.

Setting the scene

Creating the right environment for your child will help him to feel settled and secure in a familiar environment. It’s worthwhile making sure the room is well ventilated at night and the temperature kept around 19 degrees. Avoid over heating your child at bedtime and keep bed clothes and bedding to a minimum.   During the summer months it may be worthwhile using a black out blind across the window to prevent early morning waking and this should help to extend their sleep time.

Contrary to common assumption it is far healthier for children and babies to sleep in total darkness as too much light in their room can interfere with their natural sleep rhythm. If you are still night feeding then a very dim glow plug- in light should be adequate. So many night lights these days are too stimulating and bright; a good guide if using one is to make sure you can’t read a book and that you should be able to just make out the outline of your child’s bed.

For younger babies playing gentle back ground music at bedtime can help them to familiarise with their bedtime routine and it will help lock in positive sleep associations. Babies are particularly sensitive to sound and are able to interpret what the sound connects to. Even babies as young as 10 weeks old upon hearing the bath water running will kick their legs vigorously in anticipation.

TV/ video games before bed

Television and computer games just before bed can have a huge influence on your child’s ability to fall into a natural sleep rhythm. Researchers from  Seattle University have found that persistent exposure to TV and computer games just before bed can cause the brain to become ‘amped up’ thus preventing the child from being able to wind down. Also, more importantly, children who have computer screens and televisions in their bedrooms are more likely to disrupt their natural production of melatonin (a naturally occurring hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycle) as the constant flickering screen and bright lights can interfere with this. 

Exercise before bed

Although exercise is vital for your child’s physical and emotional wellbeing, too close to bedtime can restrict your child’s ability to fall asleep. That’s why rough and tumbles with dad just before bedtime is a no no.

To use exercise as an antidote for sleep and for it to be beneficial it’s best undertaken 2-3 hours before bedtime. The best suggested forms of exercise at this time which raises the body temperature effectively are: swimming, cycling, trampolining, running or any other activity that causes breathlessness.  The body temperature needs to start falling just before bed because this decrease in temperature appears to be the trigger that helps ease your child into sleep. Try it with your child and you will be amazed at the difference!


Whatever type of family you are, big or small, a bedtime routine can be the one thing that can bring peace and harmony to the end of a busy day. It’s the predictable and consistent nature of it that helps to make your child feel safe and secure.