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  • Hailee Schollaardt

Sleep Routines

“Routine” is a word that is often confused with the term “schedule.” When parents hear the word schedule they shudder at the thought of schedules being set, strict, times when their little one must eat, wake and sleep. Every so often infants and children do well while using strict schedules but generally they tend to respond better to similar routines.

Routines are similar to schedules in that they help to establish structure, stability and predictability in your family’s day. Predictable routines that are used daily help to signal events that are about to occur. So routines don’t mean doing things at exact times but instead are used at times during the day to cue events that you want to happen. A good example of this would be a nap and bedtime routine. The steps that you include in your sleep routines will cue the body to release sleep hormones which will help lead to restful sleep. Although this routine will happen at similar times of the day it doesn’t have to happen at exactly the same time each day to yield the response that you want. Following a consistent sleep time ritual or routine will tell your baby that will be sleeping soon which will allow their brain to signal a release of sleep hormones.

Just about every sleep expert will agree on the fact that every child, from early infancy right up through the school years, needs a comforting and predictable nap and bedtime routine. Establishing healthy sleep routines from infancy can not only help you as the parent get into the groove but it also helps your baby form positive sleep associations. Sleep associations are the links between cues in the routine that help your baby fall asleep and sleep. For example, turning on white noise during the sleep routine will make that sound become a cue that signals the brain it will be sleeping soon and so this would be 1 association.

In my opinion routines are often one of the most overlooked aspects around infant and toddler sleep and one of the easiest changes to implement. I do believe it is due to being confused with a schedule! Routines are the steps or cues that you do before your baby falls asleep for a nap and bedtime. Simple as that! It doesn't matter where your baby is going down, who is putting them down or what time they are going down but we want those steps/cues to be the same. When you do the same steps before naps and the same steps before bedtime the body is able to recognize these steps as leading to sleep. This, as stated above, creates an internal body process of releasing sleep hormones to make it easier for your baby to fall asleep! Parents might know it is time for sleep because we can tell time but our babies obviously cannot tell time and so by providing these steps we are acting as their clock letting the body know what to do.

Routines consist of all the activities that occur while your child prepares for bed and while he falls asleep. Your sleep routine will not only help your little one prepare for naps or bedtime but it will also help establish consistency in your day!

Sleep Routine Tips:

  • Start a routine as early as you can with your new baby. Babies generally do not associate cues or associations until 3-4 months (beginning of 4 month sleep regression) but by getting into the habit early you will have them perfected! This way when your baby does begin to build associations you already have a great routine in place!

  • Your nap routine should be a shortened version of your bedtime routine (See sample routines

  • Approx. half an hour before you begin the sleep routine reduce the amount of stimulation around your child. This includes dimmer lights, less noise, and lighter and gentler activity.“Bore them!”

  • Keep the steps in your routine the same each day to establish predictability for your child. Even if you are behind one day still complete each step of the routine versus skipping a step. For example, a quick splash in the tub versus a 10 minute bath. Skipping steps in the routine can trigger your baby to supress sleep hormones to try and figure out why something has changed in the routine.

  • The final steps in the routine should take place in the room that your child will be sleeping in. This will help create a positive association with his sleeping environment.

  • The last step of the routine should be to allow your child to fall asleep doing something that he/she can replicate on their own. That way when they wake in the night they won’t need you to be there to help them soothe. This is all a work in progress though and so if you are helping your baby to fall asleep keep this as the last step in the routine as you set up a consistent nap and night routine. Once you are ready to work on eliminating that final step then at least you have a series of other cues in place that are still telling the body it is sleep time for when you remove that final step. This is where sleep coaching may come in.

  • Include calming activities that help soothe and quiet your baby.

  • Nap routines are usually short ranging from 5-10 minutes. If your baby falls asleep on their own then start the routine 5 minutes before you will be putting them in their sleep space. If you are helping your baby fall asleep then start the routine with enough time to have your baby fall asleep by their goal sleep time.

  • Begin Bedtime routine 45-60 minutes before you want your child asleep or in their sleep space. They often need a longer calming period before night sleep since all the stimulation from the day has accumulated.

  • Have your routine always going most stimulating down to least stimulating. This is what helps relax the body. As you can see in the examples going into the sleep environment for the hands on part of the routine happens at the end. Once in the sleep space I do not recommend leaving that space as it is sleep time!

Calming Activities That Can Be Used In a Sleep Routine

  • Reading books - I recommend having this as part of quiet time before the bath for infants under a year and then at a year I move it to in the bedroom as cuddle time.

  • Singing/humming songs

  • Say prayers

  • Turn on white noise

  • Light talking “It’s time for a nap.”

  • Bathing

  • Massaging

Example Nap Time Routine

  • Pick up your child and slowly walk to their bedroom and whisper “it’s time for a sleep.”

  • Turn on white noise

  • Change if needed

  • Swaddle or sleep sack if using

  • Turn off the lights

  • Stand beside crib and gently rock and hum a short lullaby

  • Lie your child down in their bed for them to fall asleep or if you are helping your baby fall asleep you would be doing that here and then putting them down.

Example Bed Time Routine

  • Eat Dinner/Nurse/Bottle/Milk

  • Light, “boring” play

  • Bath

  • Say good nights to others in the house

  • Walk to their room and say "it's time for sleep"

  • Turn on white noise

  • Lotion Massage & pajamas

  • Turn off lights

  • Stand beside crib and gently rock and hum a short lullaby

  • Lie your child down in their bed for them to fall asleep or if you are helping your baby fall asleep you would be doing that here and then putting them down.

Routines are unique to each family. Choose the steps that work best but the key is to keep them consistent!! Don't skip out on steps as we really want each step to act as a cue for sleep. As your baby gets older you can add steps into the routine such a story or bedtime snack but overall routines stay quite consistent. Younger babies usually have shorter routines because they are not awake as long and then between 6-12 months they remain very similar.

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