One thing every parenting book will drill into you from the time your baby is born is the importance of a bedtime routine. A consistent bedtime and routine helps children calm down and prep for sleep. While we had mixed experiences with routines when James was a baby and first six months, getting him just to sleep was hard, we really got firm with the routine at 1 and it’s really worked well for us since. In fact, he’s a pretty strong willed child but when it comes to bedtime, he usually goes down without a fight after his bedtime routine and sleeps through the night for a solid 11-12 hours and wakes up consistently at about the same time every day which has allowed me to squeeze in workouts and made my mornings much easier because I can squeeze in shower and some breakfast prep before he’s up.
The first key to his bedtime routine has been to put him down at the same time every night. Of course sometimes we’re traveling or have a sitter or something else that delays bedtime and I honestly don’t stress about it too much. Because we are otherwise so consistent with his bedtime, especially during the week when our work schedules etc our so consistent, he easily gets back on track. We just jump right back into his normal bedtime the next night and even if he stays awake in his crib for awhile, soon enough he’s back on track.
Bedtime for James is 7:30pm. This gives us time to give him dinner and play with him when we get home from work before starting the bedtime routine. It also gives him time to run around and digest post-dinner. Andrew doesn’t always get home in time to do dinner with James or do more than say good night but I am usually able to get home in time for dinner (or at least the end of it) and to play and spend time together before starting the bedtime routine. I find this is really important because James gets excited and wound up when I get home from work (as does Dakota) and as I’ve written about before, investing quality time in playing and praising and paying attention to just your child results in better behavior. It’s hard when I’m exhausted and hungry from work and commuting, have a bunch of work emails still coming through and a million to-dos waiting, but I try to commit this time to just being with James. We had been feeding James dinner at 5:30pm, so typically my nanny would start it with him and I might catch him at the end of his dinner, but I’m trying to push his dinner back to 6pm so we can eat together. It’s an important family ritual I want to implement even if we both can’t always be there. After dinner, we play either in the house or on the deck. If Andrew is traveling for work, we’ll walk Dakota together, which is incredibly frustrating and hard because James wants to hold the leash and Dakota wants to sniff everything, but it does burn lots of energy for everyone. If James has a lot of energy, which he usually does, we’ll run around with Dakota a bit, maybe have a dance party, play kitchen outside or the drums inside. If he’s seeming pretty tired and cranky, I’ll try to get him to do a quieter activity like reading books, coloring, or his current fave cooking (literally taking actual food out of the freezer which he can now open and pouring into his pots and pans and making a mess, but he loves it so I’ve learned to accept the mess and keep a special bag of food that he can use for it that I keep in the most accessible spot so we’re not being wasteful).
After 30-45 minutes of playing, so usually around 6:30/6:45pm, I give a warning that it’s almost bath time. James’ teacher at school always gives 5 and 10 minutes warnings before it’s time to transition to another activity so James is starting to understand that concept and while he doesn’t always transition easily, I find it helpful in setting his expectation and signaling what’s next in the routine – bath time. If I give this warning and he pays attention and repeats it, he’s often more likely to agree to go in the bathroom for his bath without fighting me. Some days he fights me, and it’s a struggle, but I try never to give in. I don’t want him to learn that if he throws a tantrum, he doesn’t have to do something. He usually plays pretty hard during the day and needs the bath and once he’s in, he doesn’t want to get out. Singing a song to get him to undress and get in the bath, letting him bring in a fun toy like a pot from the kitchen or getting in the bath myself are usually some tricks I use if he’s being super resistant. Sometimes I do stick him in kicking and screaming and no joke, he stops crying and is all happy and playing two seconds later.
Getting him out of the bath can be hard. Again, I do a five minute warning. Sometimes I let him play longer because he’s having fun and enjoying himself and it’s cute and I try not to be too rigid at bedtime so that it remains a fun and relaxing part of his day that he looks forward to (and that I do as well so that no matter how tired I am, I actually stick to the schedule). I usually try to dangle his milk if he gets out because he loves his pre-bed milk. I also will start draining the water and start removing the toys but leave him in and once it’s all drained, he’s usually down to get out. Sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle with tears (usually when he’s really tired or having a lot of fun with a new bath toy) but again, once he’s out and wrapped in a towel, the tantrum doesn’t tend to last more than a few seconds.
After bath, we put on a pull-up and pajamas. Then we get his milk which he likes to drink in a specific sippy. We cuddle and read his favorite stories while he drinks his milk.
When he’s done with milk, he knows it’s teeth brushing time, which he now loves because he gets to watch the Elmo song (I wrote about it more here). I help him brush his teeth while he watches the Elmo song and then try to grab the phone before he starts watching another video. This is usually a struggle and I used to give in to give myself a few minutes to straighten the bath and clean his milk cup, but I don’t think screen time before bed is good (even if it calms him) and he goes to sleep much faster without it. Plus, it doesn’t matter if I take the phone right after Elmo or after three videos, he cries either way. Luckily, it no longer lasts more than a second because it’s part of our routine.
Then we hug dad and Dakota good night and go into his room which is dark. We sing a few songs while I rock and cuddle him. Then I tell him how much I love him, we turn on his mobile that plays music, do final hugs and I place him in his crib.
I had been staying for a few minutes in his room after putting him in the crib. I used to stay until he fell asleep when he was younger as it was the only way I could get him down, but recently I’ve started leaving right after. I tell him I love him and I’ll see him tomorrow and shut the door. Otherwise, he’ll try to talk to me and get my attention. Sometimes he’ll stay up for 10-20 minutes singing and talking, but usually he’s asleep within 5-10 minutes and sleeps until 7am the next morning.
Of course there are nights he wakes up in the middle of the night, throws tantrums and won’t go down, or wakes up at the crack of dawn, but that happens really infrequently and I really think it’s because we have established a solid routine and he knows what comes next and that consistency works for him.
What about you other mamas? Any good bedtime rituals I should try or routines or tricks that have worked for you?