The science of the bedtime routine
Age: 3 months 1 week
For many new parents, the importance of establishing a bedtime routine is the only piece of sleep advice they hear almost as often as “sleep when the baby sleeps.” There’s a reason for this, too - sleep is one of the most important resources parents can secure for themselves, and a bedtime routine can be a great assset when it comes to getting enough of it. There are a million different variations on the bedtime routine that work for millions of parents, but there are a few stand-bys that show up again and again, and there's a reason why they work.
People from parenting bloggers to writers for the National Sleep Foundation have said that, to a certain degree, it doesn’t even matter what the bedtime routine is, it just matters that it is consistent every night. Part of this is that babies and toddlers thrive on routines in general - it’s a big, brand new world out there for a baby, and knowing what to expect, both at bedtime, and in the rest of her life, can help your baby feel more secure about herself.
Another piece is the consistency of bedtime and waking time that comes along with the routine. According to the Mayo Clinic, having a consistent time to go to sleep and to wake up again reinforces the body’s sleep-wake cycle, which can lead to better sleep.
On the other hand, some parts of successful bedtime routines help promote sleep not just because they happen every night, but because they encourage the body to get some rest. If you start to dim the lights in your home as bedtime gets closer, you can start to encourage the production of melatonin in your child's (and your own!) body.
The sleep-wake cycle is regulated by hormones produced in the body, specifically melatonin, that signal drowsiness. As the body notices its envornment getting darker, which signals that the sun is going down and the time to sleep is approaching, the body starts to produce melatonin. But melatonin production, like many processes in the body, doesn't just happen because it's prompted by the environment; it also follows routine. This means you can help encourage melatonin production both by keeping to a regular bedtime schedule and by dimming the lights, or using lamps instead of an overhead light, as it gets closer to bedtime. It can also help to make sure your baby spends some time out in the natural light during the day, which can reinforce the regulation of melatonin production.
One of the simpler but important parts of bedtime routines is slowing down at the end of the evening. Active play gets adrenaline running through the body, which can make children even more alert and energetic. It can be helpful to encourage energetic, active play in the morning and early afternoon, and leave the latter part of the day as a winding-down period, since winding down starts to prepare a child's brain and body for sleep.
The other reason slowing down can be such a helpful part of the bedtime routine is because toddlers especially can have some trouble switching their focus, and giving your baby this transitional period between bedtime and the rest of her day can help drive the message home that it's almost time for bed. There’s no strict rule for how long this winding-down period should last, but half an hour is often plenty for an active toddler.
One thing to keep in mind is that this quiet, transitional period shouldn’t include screen time - even if an episode of "How I Met Your Mother" will get your baby to quiet right down, the brightness of the light from the screen could interfere with sleep.
While bathing isn't part of every bedtime routine, it may be helpful to include for those children who enjoy the bath. A bath before bed can help a child calm down, and after a warm bath, the body’s temperature drops in a way that's similar to the way the body does for sleep, which can relax the body in preparation for bed.
S.S. Campbell, P.J. Murphy. “Nighttime drop in body temperature: a physiological trigger for sleep onset?” Sleep. 20(7):505-11. Web. July 1997.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Sleep tips: 7 steps to better sleep.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, June 9 2014. Web.
Raising Children Network. “Positive bedtime routines.” Raising Children. Raising Children Network, July 25 2016. Web.
“Adopt Good Sleep Habits.” Healthy Sleep. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, December 12 2008. Web.
“Perfecting Your Child’s Bedtime Routine.” Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation, 2016. Web.
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