Bedtime routines and sleeping through the night

By Michelle Fisher · 8 September, 2017

Are you exhausted?

Are you exhausted because your baby or toddler doesn’t sleep well at night? Do your evenings consist of trying to get your little one to go to bed and stay in bed? If so you’re probably here because you’re searching for ways that will help your baby or toddler settle well and sleep through the night.

In part 1 of this blog I will look at why a good bedtime routine is vital in helping babies and children to fall asleep and sleep well throughout the night and what a good bedtime routine looks like. In part 2, ‘Helping your baby to sleep through the night’, I look at why babies and children wake during the night and how you can help them get back to sleep in a way that means they feel safe and secure and everybody gets as much sleep as possible.

Why is getting enough sleep important?

Good sleep promotes physical and psychological well being and is important for so many reasons. Children are more ready to learn if they feel well rested. Good sleep also assists learning because this is when the brain stores information and is a special time for brain development. The growth hormone needed for tissue and muscle development is mainly released during sleep. Lack of sleep can cause behavioural and emotional problems, shorten attention span and present like adhd symptoms. Children with sleep problems are more likely to be hyper impulsive and aggressive. When children are over-tired, unlike adults, they don’t get tired and listless they get more keyed up, are more likely to get hurt and often get over emotional. Sleep deprivation also leaves children more vulnerable to illness. The benefits for parents are huge too. This is one of the times for us to get some ‘me time’. We deserve that time and if we are well rested then we are going to have more energy, feel better and be able to deal with life in a more positive way.

How much sleep do babies need and when can we start using a bedtime routine?

What do we mean by sleeping through the night? Most health professionals, when they refer to a baby ‘sleeping through’ the night, actually mean a stretch of about five hours. It is unlikely that a young baby will sleep for longer periods because they will get hungry. So let’s look at how much sleep babies and children need each night in total? It is important to stress that this is just a guide and that everyone is different. The amount of sleep needed will vary slightly from child to child and you should be guided by your child, noticing when they are re-energised and happy after their nights sleep, and how many hours they needed to feel that way.

From zero to three months babies need 16 to 18 hours a day but it is very scattered in the early weeks because they are unaware of day and night and young breastfed and bottlefed babies will be feeding regularly around the clock. At this stage you will need to do whatever you can to help them to sleep e.g. rocking, feeding, comforting etc.

At around three months old, and at about 12 pounds in weight, most babies will begin to develop the diurnal/nocturnal sleep patterns, stretching out their sleep at night and being more awake during the day. This is a great time to establish consistent bedtime routines which encourage them to develop positive sleep associations, helping them to understand that it is night time and time for sleep.

From three to 12 months babies need 12 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. With 10 to 11 hours being at night and the remaining hours being divided between two naps. From three to six months many babies are able to nap on a schedule but for some it can be seven to nine months before they get really good at a napping routine.

At 18 months your toddler will need about 12.5 to 13.5 hours sleep in a 24 hour period, still keeping 10 to 11 hours at night but usually dropping to one nap a day.

By two years old toddlers sleep 12.5 to 13.5 hours in a 24 hour period and the number of naps remains the same as 18 months old.

At three years old the total hours stays at 12 to 13 hours but the hours may begin to be a little longer at night when some children begin to stop napping. However some children will still nap up until they are around five years old.

By four to years of age children sleep a total of 11 to 12 hours in a 24 hour period with most or all of it at night.

For six years and older the amount of sleep continues to decrease slowly over time. What is important to note though is that even at eight years old some children still need as much as 11.5 hours sleep at night.

Why does a good bedtime routine help children sleep through the night?

One of the best ways to help your child nap better during the day and sleep better at night is by helping them to form associations and expectations around bedtime. When a child knows what to expect they feel safe and secure and it can therefore be unsettling for them if they don’t have a good bedtime routine. Young children aren’t yet able to tell the time so it is up to us to help them recognise the physical signs that they are tired and ready for sleep, for example; rubbing eyes, yawning, fiddling with hair or being clumsy. It is also up to us to help them understand when it is time to go to bed and time to sleep. Talk to your child about their physical signs of tiredness so they begin to recognise them for themselves. As I mentioned earlier, when children get overtired they often become hyper impulsive and aggressive and this does not promote a relaxed state from which it is easy for them to feel calm and ready to fall asleep. A bedtime routine helps your child to relax and gives them the signs/associations that bedtime is coming and it will soon be time to sleep. Being relaxed and calm at bedtime will mean your child will fall asleep more easily and experience less night wakings. A bedtime routine also gives you and your child invaluable one to one time which adds to your child’s sense of calmness, happiness and security.

What does a good bedtime routine look like?

A bedtime routine should last between 20 minutes and half an hour. Children who are settled and have good sleep associations will generally take about 20 mins to fall asleep after the bedtime routine has finished. So start the routine approximately 35 to 40 minutes before your child needs to be asleep depending on how many hours sleep they need for their age (see above).

Bedtime should be at the same time in the same place every night and the routine should be in the same order. For children who are cared for in more than one household the routine should be the same in each house if possible. This consistency is what builds the healthy sleep associations and habits. The last ten to 15 minutes of the routine should be in the room where your baby sleeps. Whether this is their own room or your bedroom they need to associate this room with sleep. The room should be darkened if possible. The routine might look something like this:

  • Bath (Not essential every night for young babies and children)
  • Massage (In a warm room with unscented, natural, organic, edible oil)
  • Feed (If your child is still feeding at this time. For older children dinner should be a two to three hours before bedtime so they have time to run off the energy that this food will give them. A light, healthy snack can be given 30 minutes before the bedtime routine starts so that they don’t get hungry during the night)
  • Pyjamas
  • Story and cuddles (Stories can be short, one or two pages, cuddles can be long!)
  • Song
  • Put your baby/child in bed and say goodnight

For babies who are still feeding just before bedtime, make sure the feed is early in the routine. Not associating feeding with falling asleep can help your baby fall back to sleep when he wakes during the night and isn’t hungry. Of course if your baby wakes and is due a feed or is hungry then you will feed him.

If you stick to a consistent bedtime routine, made up of some or all of the things above, you should begin to see that your child finds it easier to fall asleep and stays asleep for longer periods of time. If having a bedtime routine is new to your child don’t expect the routine to help things immediately. Sometimes it can take around six weeks for change to be effective.

In part 2 of this blog, ‘Helping your baby to sleep through the night’, I look at why babies and children wake during the night and how you can help them get back to sleep in a way that means they feel safe and secure and everybody gets as much sleep as possible. Happy bedtime routines and I hope you and your children enjoy them together.