Creating a Soothing Bedtime Routine – 7 Tips to Meet the Challenge

For toddlers and preschoolers, the bedtime routine can often be the most challenging part of the day. It means another transition and separation from you, at the same time that everyone in the household is a bit tired and sometimes frazzled from a long day.

Every parent knows that bedtime routines should be soothing and predictable for their child. Dr. Douglas Teti, a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies from Penn State published a finding about the importance of bedtime routines. He studied 35 parents with children under 2 years old. Granted, not a huge study but his findings were validating. Dr. Teti states that children sleep better when their emotional needs were met and they felt attached to their parents. In other words, the parents needed to be:

  • somewhat flexible in their routine (ie. mix it up with a puzzle one night instead of a book)
  • responsive to their child’s needs at that particular moment, and
  • the parent’s words and actions should match their behavior.

When parents are emotionally available their children feel more secure and safe and are able to go to sleep more easily.

I always swore that if I was feeling a bit frazzled at bedtime or if I was in a rush at bedtime, my girls picked it up and the bedtime routine didn’t go as smoothly. Children are so intuitive! Without realizing it our children teach us to be in the moment and nowhere else.

Here are some tips that will help make your child’s bedtime routine smooth and sleep inducing:

1. Bedtime preparations should be in her room

Perhaps the early stage can be in a younger sibling’s room, but not all over the house. Include stories, songs, or games that soothe, not stimulate. Make sure the rules for how many stories or how long you will read, are completely clear and non-negotiable. Avoid wild, fast-moving games and scary stories.

2. Leave plenty of time to unwind

You need to leave at least a half-hour for your child to relax and get the attention they need from you. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to take hours to have a peaceful bedtime routine — more like 20-30 minutes. If you rush it, she’ll be more likely to run out of bed, stall, or beg you to stay longer.

3. Be Consistent

If two parents take turns at bedtime, you don’t have to follow an identical script but you should have a similar routine, style, and response to bedtime power plays, fears, or manipulation.

4. Blame it on the clock

If she starts bargaining for an even longer time with you, more stories or more songs, blame the clock. Calmly tell her the clock says you have to stop reading at 8:00p.m., so you have ten minutes. Then when it’s 8pm say “Oh, look! The clock says 8:00. Lights-out time. We can’t read any more books tonight. We’ll have to get upstairs earlier tomorrow night if we want to read more books.”

5. Give a warning

“We have a few more pages in this book, and then Mommy is going to turn out the light.” Sometimes they like to turn out the light themselves. It’s another way they can “own” bedtime. It’s good to give some kind of indication that it’s going to be “lights-out” soon.

6. Try a toddler clock or timer

“Oh, the music went on” or “Oh, the light changed, it’s time for bed.” If the clock ploy doesn’t work, feel free to blame me! “It’s 8:00. The Sleep Lady says we have to turn out the lights now.” By the way, toddler clocks are fantastic for teaching your toddler when it’s ok to get up in the morning too. At bedtime remind your toddler that they must stay in their bed until their wake up clock tells them its ok it get up. Be specific on your directions based on the type of clock you use.

7. Teach your child creative visualization.

Some children will say, “I can’t do it; I can’t put myself to sleep.” Explain that everyone has trouble going to sleep sometimes, even Mommy and Daddy, and then teach them some simple relaxation techniques and creative visualization. Children have such wonderfully active imaginations, they are actually better at visualization than we are. They may not understand the word visualization, but they certainly get pretend and imagine. They can learn how to think relaxing thoughts at bedtime, how to close their eyes and imagine playing at the beach, building a snowman, taking a summer walk with their cousins in Vermont. This can be particularly helpful if your child is scared or has a nightmare and is having trouble going back to sleep.

Try to build on the images in their favorite illustrated book and have them imagine entering the book to play with the characters (as long as there are no scary themes). My own girls loved playing “in” Angelina Ballerina. The mouse house illustrations were so inviting and warm. Your children will come up with their own suggestions and will pleasantly surprise you with their creativity. You might also want to teach your child deep relaxation techniques, the kind you do at the end of a good exercise class or before going into labor! Have her relax her toes, her feet, her ankles, shins, knees, and so forth, all the way up her body. If you don’t want to do this yourself, you can play a relaxation CD.

Children also like applying their imaginations to a dream agenda. “Tonight I’ll dream about playing basketball.” Or “Tonight I will dream about building a sand castle.” Or “Tonight I will dream about being a beautiful ballerina.” It helps them feel more in control of what happens to them after they fall asleep, particularly if they are worried about having nightmares. My “Dream Cards” (available below ) might help children feel in control of their dreams. The cards guide children through a progressive relaxation exercise and have several images for dream ideas such as a tree house, a beach scene, a field of flowers, and a rainbow. I based them on my experiences with creating dreams with my own daughters.

Try my Dream Cards and lullaby MP3 download “Sweetest Dreams”, available for sale for $29.95 by clicking here.Hope you find these Toddler Sleep Tips helpful

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child.

She is the author of The Sleep Lady’s Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies.

Click here to read more about her.

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