Sleep is vital to your baby’s development, but setting a bedtime routine can be difficult for parents to introduce. After all, for someone so tiny, a baby will cause major upheaval!
For the first few months of their life, your baby will sleep – and wake – at any time during the day or night. Newborns don’t develop their circadian rhythms (or internal timing mechanisms) until around 2-3 months old. In fact, it is believed that for the first 6-8 weeks of life, most babies have their days and nights completely mixed up. Between the ages of 4-7 months old however, babies learn to self-soothe. As such, they’re likely to sleep for longer stretches during the night.
Once your baby has begun sleeping longer hours during the night, you should start to create positive associations around sleep and bedtime. The easiest way to do this is by helping your little one to settle into a healthy bedtime routine.
The benefits of setting a bedtime routine
Babies thrive on consistency; by establishing a sense of structure, your baby will be calmer in knowing what to expect from the day (and night) ahead. Encouraging your little one to feel relaxed around bedtime will also help them to settle more easily in an unfamiliar surrounding.
Research suggests that about 20-30% of infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers are affected by ‘bedtime problems and frequent night wakings.’ What’s more, studies have shown that ‘sleep problems first presented in infancy may persist into the preschool and school-aged years and become chronic.’ In short, experts advise that parents start to introduce a bedtime routine sooner rather than later, so that their children are more likely to sleep better as they grow. Poor sleep is known to negatively impact cognitive development in infancy, affecting things like learning, memory and mood regulation; it’s also been attributed to metabolic and immune health. One study in the US even found a link between childhood obesity and a lack of sleep.
The benefits of better sleep – for babies and adults alike – are well documented. In fact, you’ll benefit from your baby’s bedtime routine too. Not only can you set aside the time each evening to bond with your little one; you’ll also have fewer disturbances during the night and sleep more soundly.
 An American Academy of Sleep Medicine Review. 2006. Behavioural Treatment of Bedtime Problems and Night wakings in Infants and Young Children. [ONLINE] Available at: https://aasm.org/resources/practiceparameters/review_nightwakingschildren.pdf. [Accessed 25th July 2018].
How to introduce a bedtime routine
It’s important to remember that, as with any new experience, your baby won’t settle into their bedtime routine straight away; it’s a process that requires patience and persistence. The good news is that once you’ve established a routine that works for you and your baby, it shouldn’t need to change (though you will need to adapt it as they grow up).
If you’re new to bedtime routines, here are some tips to help your baby settle into one and drift off more easily:
1. Choose a suitable time (and stick to it). To really make a routine work in the long-term, it’s important that you set a time and remain consistent with it. Between the ages of 1-4 months, your baby’s bedtime can be anywhere between 8-11pm. As they grow older, their bedtime should be earlier; by the time they’re 15 months to 3 years of age, they should go to bed between 6-8pm.
2. Help them to wind down with a bath. Bath times are a great way to help your baby to relax before bed, and they’ll soon learn to associate the experience with bedtime. The warm water will soothe your baby and raise their core body temperature slightly too, which will make them feel sleepy. Read our bath time tips to get the lowdown on tub time.
3. Dress them for bed. After bathing, put your baby in clothes that are only used for bedtime. Choose a pair of baby pyjamas that are comfortable and non-binding – something that’s neither too light or too warm that will keep them cosy during the night.
4. Make sure the room is dark and quiet. This will help them to identify the differences between night and day, and the routines that are associated with each.
5. Avoid nursing them to sleep. It may seem counter-intuitive, but rocking or nursing your baby to sleep – even at a young age – can affect their sleeping habits in the long-term. Once they start associating sleep with nursing, you’ll find it tricky to get them to sleep any other way. Instead, put your baby down in their cot when they’re drowsy but still awake; stay in the room and leave when they’re eyelids start to become heavy – but not closed. Babies typically rouse every 40-50 minutes; if they wake up to realise things have changed in the room since they fell asleep, they’re likely to become agitated and begin crying. Similarly, if your baby does wake up during the night (and if they’re not hungry or uncomfortable), refrain from picking them up. Instead, simply place your hand gently on your baby to help them settle again.
How do I stick to a routine whilst my baby is growing up?
Over the course of their first year, your baby will develop a lot. During growth spurts – or when they hit developmental milestones such as sitting up or crawling – you should expect to experience some disruptions to their bedtime routine. They may sleep for longer or wake up more regularly during the night. If this happens, your baby will probably be able to settle back into their usual routine within a couple of weeks; if not, try adjusting it slightly to accommodate their growth.
Whilst it’s important to remain consistent with their bedtime routine, you should also allow for some flexibility with it – especially as they grow up. As they get older, your baby will need fewer naps during the daytime, and require more stimulating play instead. As a parent, take cues from your baby and adapt the routine accordingly; don’t expect it to work right away – or even every day – but persevere and you’ll instil healthy sleeping habits that will benefit your little one for life.