Hacking the Bedtime Routine: The 3B’s to a Blissful Nights Sleep

By  Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH | Updated - 29 January 2021

Why is it important to have a bedtime routine?

For me, the bedtime routine is probably the most important routine in your daily schedule. If there is one routine you should definitely establish for your children then bedtime is it. If you can develop healthy sleep habits in your children it will mean that the whole family will benefit from a good night sleep and you as the parents will have the essential few hours in the evening to recharge your batteries and share some adult time.

In my experience, sleep breeds sleep, because an overtired baby or young child will struggle to settle and therefore it follows that a well-rested baby will sleep better. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that too longer naps in the day will ruin your babies sleep at night.

bedtime routine baby sleeping in cot with blue spotty top

As long as you are not letting your toddler sleep for several hours late in the afternoon and you space out naps sensibly, then day time naps should not impact on nighttime sleep. To help you, it is good to have an idea of how much sleep is age-appropriate for your child, so the National Sleep Foundation have published guidelines as to how much sleep your baby or young child needs at what age:

  • Newborns: 0-3 months = 14 to 17 hours
  • Infants: 4-11 months = 12 to 15 hours
  • Toddlers: 1-2 years = 11 to 14 hours
  • Preschoolers: 3-5 years = 10 to 13 hours

When should you start a bedtime routine?

Your evening routine and your babies bedtime routine should be inextricably linked. It is possible to introduce a healthy night routine at any time but the earlier, the better. I explain how you can introduce a healthy newborn bedtime routine in my post the Ultimate Guide To An Easy Baby Routine. Getting ready for bed is a process that you can start from the time your baby is a few weeks old but don't expect your baby to go from being rocked to sleep to suddenly being able to fall asleep alone. This is something you have to help them to learn.

Gently introduce less rocking when you are preparing them for sleep and put your baby down when they are still awake. Babies take time to learn so go back to them when they cry, pick them up and cuddle them then put them back down again. They need to know that you have not abandoned them and that you will come back. Over a 2-4 week period, your little one should learn the art of self-soothing so stay confident and consistent and gradually your baby will adjust to falling asleep alone and you will be on the way to establishing a healthy sleep routine that will put you and your baby in good stead for years to come.

How do I establish a bedtime routine?

So it’s the end of the day. You are tired and in desperate need of some time to yourself. Don’t feel guilty for feeling this way. You have given you all today and now you need to recharge the parenting batteries. Whilst in the early weeks it is recognised that there is very little time to take for yourself until baby starts sleeping through the evening or night, but hopefully, by 6-8 weeks your baby is in some sort of routine which will allow you to implement these guidelines. If you start as you wish to go on, your evenings will most definitely become the much-needed sanctuary that they should be.

bedtime routine child sleeping in bed wearing pink star PJs

Whereas in the very early days it is certainly fine and lovely to let baby fall asleep in your arms or on your tummy (never in your bed) you should ideally gradually encourage your baby to fall asleep independently, by laying him/her in a cot or on in the pram when awake and allowing him/ her to self-settle. Establishing self-settling will, in turn, make the bedtime routine run more smoothly as your baby will be accustomed to being left to fall asleep on their own. I cannot emphasise enough that letting a baby get used to self-settling or indeed just spending short periods of time alone in a safe place, encourages the sleep patterns for later childhood. The cot should be a happy, safe place and never a place of punishment.

I would also recommend that your child not only be put to sleep in a quiet dark place. Babies should be encouraged to fall asleep in a variety of places i.e. in prams or stroller or in Moses Baskets in other parts of the house, and never in complete silence. If your house is normally quite noisy then don’t undergo a radical change. Doorbells ringing, vacuum cleaners and radios on are all fine when your baby is asleep. Newborns are able to sleep through pretty much everything, so try to avoid retraining them to sleep in a silent environment. All of your everyday household sounds will become white noise with only sudden loud bursts of sound disrupting sleep. Trust me you will thank me for it later.

On the other hand, when it comes to the bedtime routine for babies, continuity and consistency are key. It should follow fundamentally the same pattern and aim to end with a regular bedtime.

A shift in gear and a change in the energy levels is also key so that they learn to anticipate that this is the quiet end to a busy day. This will stand you in good stead as your child grows. Young babies and children like predictable and repetitive routines and activities so a stable and consistent night time routines for babies is a good place to nurture a healthy attitude towards a healthy sleeping routine.

For me, the bedtime routine is sacrosanct and should be the cornerstone of your daily routine. A quiet end to a busy parenting day is your reward and an essential key to the success of your parenting. A well-rested parent who has had time to relax at the end of a day equals a better parent. So view putting your children to bed at a reasonable time as your investment into the success of the following day.

How to get ready for bed: Bath, Book and Bed

Baby bedtime routines can in principle follow the same pattern from birth to early childhood with only the amount of daily nap times changing. While sleep regressionteething and other common sleep problems may temporarily interrupt your nightly routine the principle of Bath, Book and Bed can be followed and should not be derailed by anything other than your little one feeling unwell. You can read more about how to deal with sleep regression in my post Sleep Regression: Why It Happens And How To Survive It and you will also find some useful information in my Teething To Tantrums Top Teething Tips for those times when teething disrupts your babies sleep routine.

bedtime routine baby playing in baby bath with toys

The entire bath, book, breast or bottle and bed routine should take in total no more than 45 minutes to an hour starting in the bathroom and finishing in the bedroom. Try to avoid more stimulating parts of the house like the playroom or living room as you don't want to have too many potential energy-boosting distractions.

0-6 months

Bedtime for babies is as important as it is for the toddler and older child. Therefore establishing a consistent and regular bedtime routine from the early days is very important and will make your bedtime's less troublesome as your little one grows and becomes more independent. So start as you mean to go on with bath, book, breast or bottle and bed.

While newborn babies do not need to be washed every day, once they are a couple of months old it is good to get them used to bath time at the end of the day. The freedom of kicking about in the water, free of the encumbrance of a nappy is wonderful for them and it is important that they get used to bathing as part of the daily routine. It is also proven that having a bath helps babies to calm down and it signifies a change in the pace of the day.

Bathing a small baby can be one of the more daunting daily events for new mums so it is important to have all your ducks-in-a-row before you start. You will find lots of useful tips in my Bathing a Newborn post but the basics for preparing a newborn for bathing are:

  • Make sure the room is at the correct temperature
  • Check the bathwater temperature before you start
  • Use natural bathing products
  • Have a bath support or baby bath
  • Have a sponge or washcloth ready (bamboo is always a great choice - super soft!)
  • Have a hooded towel
  • Simple bath toys
  • Make sure you are comfortable - a floor mat is always a good idea to help your knees and elbows from getting sore!

It is important to use the correct bath products for your baby’s sensitive skin. Green People have a great range of organic and midwife endorsed products for bath time as well as many other useful baby and child products.

If your baby has sensitive skin or is prone to eczema I would suggest using a product like Aveeno Baby Daily Care Hair and Body Wash. Once bath time fun is over you should aim to lower the energy levels. Play softly and gently whilst dressing for bedtime.

Baby massage may be something you would like to introduce at this time of the day. There are baby massage courses and classes available and Green People do an organic baby massage cream. Baby massage is a wonderful bonding experience and is thought to help with digestive issues like colic and reflux which may inhibit your baby's ability to fall asleep. There are even studies that show that babies who receive regular massage show signs of healthy weight gain and improved immune function. The real bonus is that regular massage sessions have been proven to help babies fall asleep more easily and stay asleep for longer. Which is all good news for you and your baby.

Before you feed baby you could now introduce your little one to the wonderful world of books. Even a newborn will like to look at books and listen to the sound of your voice as you talk about what you see and feel. In my posts when to start reading to baby and the best baby books you will find some great ideas on what books to choose and how to start reading to your little one.

Next, the evening feed which will naturally progress into the bedtime feed. Even at this stage, it is important for your baby to sense the difference in rhythm in the day. The bedtime feed is best given whilst sitting in a chair in the dimly lit bedroom away from distracting TV or other house noises.

Try and make sure that baby has been well winded to avoid early waking from discomfort and then check that their nappy is still clean and dry before settling.

Most young babies like to be swaddled as it reminds them of being in the womb. Swaddles like The Nested Bean Swaddle are lovely for this stage

Singing a lullaby and or playing a musical mobile of some sort is a great settler for a young baby and white noise machines can be very useful for night time settling.  There are even some great audio sound apps for soothing your baby to sleep.

Of course, the very young baby will need another feed before you go to bed yourself in the hope that you can get a minimum of 4 hours sleep before the middle of the night feed, but again it is important to keep energy and voice levels low. In fact, in the middle of the night, there is no need for a lot of chat at all. Most babies will soon learn that this is a quiet time of day and time for sleep, but again I emphasise the need to start as you mean to go on. And although you can establish good sleeping habits in an older baby or child it will take a lot longer than if you have started at an early age.

bedtime routine sleeping baby in pink one piece

6-12 months

Bath time will change as your baby is able to sit and play with bath toys. Some good toys for this age group are ones they can splash, squirt and pour with like Infantino Squirt Bath Toys. 

Building on the above routine now is when the benefits of putting your baby in the cot to play or to self-settle in the day will begin to pay off, as you want to avoid bedtime being the only time they are left alone. If your little one has become accustomed to falling asleep alone during the day then bedtime will be a lot easier for you. After their feed, soothe and cuddle them to the point that they are drowsy then put your baby into their cot whilst still awake. Now is also a good time to introduce a favourite cuddly toy or comforting blanket as this will really help them to settle. Then softly wish them goodnight.

Moving on from a swaddle to a sleeping bag like the ones from the Gro Company by 6 months is also a good idea to ensure your baby has a comfortable night's sleep.

Once you have settled your little one if they should cry out try not to dash back into them straight away but wait for up to 10 minutes to see if they will settle themselves. I know that for many parents this difficult, but your baby will wake naturally many times during night sleep and if you come running every time they whimper or grizzle they will quickly learn that this is all they need to do to make you return to them.

If you do have to go back into the nursery once you have put your baby down then it is best not to pick them up to rather pat them gently or stroke their cheek or between their brows and down towards the nose. Babies find this very soothing and then before they are fast asleep try to leave again.

12-18 months

A bedtime routine for toddlers will differ slightly from that of the younger baby. There may now be a teatime routine prior to bath time, but it will still follow the pattern of a bath, book and milk feed or drink and bed.

Bath time will probably become more energetic with splashing and playing with a variety of bath toys that can pour and squirt and playing with blowing bubbles. However once out the bath and your little one is all wrapped up in a warm towel make sure you don't play excitable games at this point. Keep things calm and low key by singing songs or quietly chatting,

Once your baby can sit you may also wish to introduce the potty as the bath is running. Sit and look at a book. Even if there is no result just sitting on the potty at this stage makes it less scary later on and is an ideal way to introduce what will be a big part of your routine down the line, before your little one becomes wary of new things and changes in routine.

Another good item to introduce at this stage as soon as the first teeth appear would be a toothbrush. There are some really good baby toothbrushes on the market as well as teething toys which help your baby get used to the feel of a toothbrush like Cactus Baby Teething Toy. See my Best Natural Teething Toys post for more great suggestions! These will all gradually introduce your little one to oral hygiene in a comfortable and gentle way as they progress to proper bedtime teeth cleaning later on. Always remember to use toothpaste designed for baby and toddler use.

Hair washing will also be part of the bedtime routine now and investing is a good shampoo eye shield is a must. Many babies and young children do not like having their hair washed so ensuring they don't have a bad experience from the start will make sure that bath time remains fun.

Once your baby is a year old they will probably still be having a bedtime drink of follow on milk in a cup which in itself is a settling tool. They may now sit quietly next to you on the sofa (but preferably in the bedroom) This is always my favourite time of the day when they are all clean and snuggly and you are cuddled closely together at the end of a hectic day.

Even very young children respond well to bedtime books and I am a great believer that it is invaluable to introduce books to young ones as soon as possible. They can teach your children so much and can be a great tool later on when dealing with issues like potty training, sharing and getting ready for a sibling or starting nursery school.

Hopefully, your earlier practices of settling your baby are now paying off with little to no trouble settling the older baby. Again a musical toy, white noise machine and a favourite cuddly toy are useful, especially if it is a favourite from day one.

bedtime routine mother reading a book to baby in bed

If, however, you are only just starting to try and establish a sleep routine you should follow the same steps as for the younger baby, by helping them to learn to self-settle, being patient and consistent and bringing energy levels down at the end of the day. It is never too late to introduce the Bath, Book and Bed routine.

18-36 months

 Between the ages of 12-24 months, a toddler typically needs a minimum of 11-14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. This will be taken between 1 or 2 day time naps depending on the age of the child and a good night’s sleep. By now your child is hopefully in a well-established bedtime routine. If however you are only now trying to establish a healthy end of day routine there are ways to make bedtime easier by following the same basic guidelines.

Make the bedtime routine calm and consistent. Toddlers have no concept of the time but they do quickly learn a sequence of events so if your bedtime routine follows the same pattern each day they will know what to expect. So it is important to stick to the same schedule and keep as near as you can to the timing, for example:

  • Tea between 5-6 pm
  • Bath 6.30 pm
  • Bed between 7 and 7.30 pm

Even if you have had a long-established bedtime routine you may at this point experience some resistance to bedtime, especially if you are moving your little one into a bed or just because they are approaching that age when they will try and see how much they can get away with. This is all perfectly normal and it is how you handle these bumps that are important.

If you are encountering some issues it is important to stay calm, resolute and quietly firm, while sticking with the plan and not to be tempted to give in and hope the phase will pass.

Common bedtime issues at this age are:

  • Stalling
  • Continually getting out of bed
  • Crying out for you to return
  • Fear of the dark

Toddlers love to test boundaries. It is the way in which they learn how to deal with the world they live in and they are looking to you to show them where these boundaries are to make them feel safe and secure. But toddlers will also want to see how much they can get away with and refusing to go to bed is a common battlefield. I do believe that if you have established a good bedtime routine from early on you are less likely to encounter objection from your toddler about going to bed, as it will be something that they have become accustomed to and something that has not changed for as long as they can remember.

If however, you are experiencing issues there are steps you can take to keep things on track and the most important thing to remember is ‘do not give in’ and let your little one stay up once they have been put to bed or let them sleep in your bed or anywhere else for that matter. That is a slippery slope you do not want to go down, as it is very hard to get back up.

Toddlers are full of energy and quite naturally their zest for life means that sometimes they just don’t want the day to end. So the 'I need a drink' or 'I’m not tired' plea is very common as you tuck them in a night, but do not let them push for extra time, even if your toddler does not seem tired. The strange thing about young children is that they can appear more active when they are overtired.

Lowering the energy levels at the end of the day is hugely important for toddlers as an overtired, wired toddler is very difficult to settle. You need to help them unwind by giving them the correct cues such as having a bath, sitting quietly with a milky drink and then reading a book before going to bed.

As you go through the tried and tested routine keep reminding them what is coming up. A 15-minute warning and the ritual of tidying up toys before teatime is an ideal way of slowing down the pace before teatime and signalling the end of high energy play. Other ways of gently reminding your little one of upcoming events as they get ready for bed are using sentences like ‘after tea, we are going to have a bath’ and ‘let’s clean your teeth and then go to bed and read a book’. In this way, they will be fully aware of what is coming up. Another useful idea is to let them have some control over the routine and a good way to do this is to allow them to choose the books that you read together before sleep.

Remember patience and continuity are your best friend at this stage of the day, you cannot sweep up an over-excited toddler at the end of a busy a day and whisk them off to tea, bath or bed. Always remember that bedtime cannot be rushed. If they think you are trying to move things along too quickly they will almost certainly dig in their heels.

Separation anxiety can also be an issue at this stage so your little one may cry as you leave the room or keep getting out of bed to come and find you. If this occurs you may for a while need to set up a system of gradual retreat from the bedroom or scheduled returns.

Initially, if your toddler has left their bedroom after being put to bed, calmly explain that it is time for sleep and return them to their bed. Try not to give lengthy explanations at this point, as you do not want to get caught up in a dialogue at this point. Put your toddler gently back into bed, say goodnight and leave the room. Repeat this for as many times as it takes for your little one to finally stay in bed.

Gradual retreating entails sitting by the bed for a set amount of time on the first night until your toddler has settled, then a little further away each night until you are out the door. Make it clear that you are not there to chat, that it is time to go to sleep and leave before your little one is sound asleep.

Scheduled revisiting is when your child cries out for you and you set a time on how often you will return to the bedroom, say every five minutes building up to 10 minutes and only return at these scheduled times and not for every request in between.

Having a favourite soft toy or blanket to sleep with may help your little one feel happier to stay in bed or play some music or a white noise machine. If you make a ritual of doing the same thing every night i.e. using the same words, offering the same soft toy, turning on the same music or white noise, then your toddler is more likely to accept bedtime with little to no resistance.

If however, you have to resort to gradual retreating or revisiting then do so with the resolution that is your stick with it you will eventually get the desired result. All children are different and some will respond to the measures you take more quickly than others. I would usually expect your toddler to be resettled into a good bedtime routine within a couple of weeks.

There is every chance that if you have worked hard over the past months to establish this holy grail of routines that you are benefiting from largely peaceful evenings, allowing you to be the best you can possibly be and well-rested for tomorrow.

3 years + Bedtime Routine

When it comes to the bedtime routine for a 3-year-old the rule of thumb is that bath time should follow the last meal of the day. For the very young child or the family technology-free evening meal for the older child, I would recommend that there should be no television or techno gadgets from this point on as they overstimulate and make it difficult to settle your child. If this is established as a rule early on, you may encounter less resistance in the future with regard to the appropriate use of technology, especially if you lead by example and leave your own screen time until after they have gone to bed.

A bedtime story for the older child which they have helped to choose is a good idea at this stage too. In addition, many children of this age enjoy listening to an audiobook. There are many good ones to choose from and these are especially useful if they are having trouble falling asleep.

bedtime routine young girl sleeping with her teddy bear

It is very common for young ones of this age to start fearing the dark as their little imaginations start to develop. A night light is useful as well as making sure they have that tried and trusted favourite toy for them to cuddle. Both are a comforting solution and along with a gentle explanation from you that you understand they are scared and that you can assure them they are safe may help them to settle.

If they are scared of unknown terrors under the bed or in the cupboard you should look in all the scary places and declare them monster free. You could even have a magic monster wand that you wave to make all potential boogeymen men disappear and then leave the wand with them saying they are safe with your magic monster wand by their side.

Finally, make sure your toddler has had a drink of water before bedtime (no excuse that they are thirsty and therefore need you to come back again!)

When Is my bedtime?

0-4 Months

  • No strict routine
  • Feed whenever, sleep whenever, play whenever
  • By 4 months, you should be aiming to have an evening feed for baby between 6-7pm. You should then aim to have a night feed between 11-12pm, with the aim of getting 4 hours of decent sleep before the next feed in the morning.

4-6 Months

  • Now is a great time to begin to introduce a nighttime routine. Remember to take it slow and use gentle encouragement by using books and dimly lit rooms to promote a gentle wind down before bedtime.
  • Ideally, aim to feed baby between 7-8pm before being put down to sleep. Followed by a feed just before you go to bed. Again, all with the aim of having 4-5 solid hours of sleep before the next feed for baby in the morning.

6-12 Months

  • Hopefully, you will have weened baby off of nighttime feeds by now, allowing for everyone to have the opportunity to sleep through the night as much as possible. 
  • Ideally, bedtime should be between 7 to 7.30pm.
  • Aim to start you Book, Bath & Bed Routine around 1 hour earlier than bedtime to encourage a slow wind down in preparation for sleep.

12-18 Months

  • Ideally, bedtime should be between 7 to 7.30pm. 
  • Aim to start you Book, Bath & Bed Routine around 1 hour earlier than bedtime to encourage a slow wind down in preparation for sleep.

18-24 Months

  • Ideally, bedtime should be between 7 to 7.30pm.
  • Aim to start you Book, Bath & Bed Routine around 1 hour earlier than bedtime to encourage a slow wind down in preparation for sleep.

2-3 Years

  • Ideally, bedtime should be around 7.30pm.
  • Aim to start you Book, Bath & Bed Routine around 1 hour earlier than bedtime to encourage a slow wind down in preparation for sleep.

3-4 Years

  • Ideally, bedtime should be around 7.30pm.
  • Aim to start you Book, Bath & Bed Routine around 1 hour earlier than bedtime to encourage a slow wind down in preparation for sleep.

4-5 Years

  • Ideally, bedtime should be around 7.30pm.
  • Aim to start you Book, Bath & Bed Routine around 1 hour earlier than bedtime to encourage a slow wind down in preparation for sleep.

you can do it!

So good luck with your quest for the all-important end of day routine. It may sound daunting but I can assure you that is you put in the effort for this couple of hours time of the day from early on, your end of day routine will be a pleasant and rewarding experience for all the family. And if even if you have not started yet do not despair as it is never too late to establish a healthy bedtime routine even with a resistant toddler. Just remember the routine Bath, Book and Bed and that a reasonable bedtime is non-negotiable. 

bedtime routine child sleeping with teddy under green blanket
Teething to Tantrums Author

Paula Mclaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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