You’ve probably heard that bedtime routines are important. But the how and why aren’t always clear.
Let’s start with the why: Human beings (and other animals, for that matter) learn by associating. We link cues in the environment with feelings and physical sensations. We get hungry when we see food and start yawning when we talk about sleep. From early on, babies strongly link feeding with sleep. But as the weeks go by, they become more aware of their environment. Setting up a consistent routine provides a transition from active play to sleep and helps babies learn to relax in response to certain cues. Think of the routine as a road to sleep with signs along the way that tell the baby where she’s going.
Now for the how: In the early days and weeks, babies sleep most of the time. There isn’t much transitioning to do because there isn’t much time awake. The very first sleep routine is simply feeding the baby in a dark, quiet place until he falls asleep. Darkness is important to teach the baby the difference between play-time and sleep time.
As weeks turn into months, babies become more stimulated by their environment, including the people who are trying to soothe them. By the time a baby is approaching 3-months of age, the bouncing, jostling, pacing and rocking that he used to need will become less effective at soothing. The routine becomes a more important transition tool.
The precise elements of the routine matter less than the tone and consistency. Simple acts like closing the door when you bring the baby into his sleep area will signal that the routine has begun. Other ways to set the stage are: closing curtains, turning on music, turning down the lights, turning on white noise. The routine can also include feeding (bottle or nursing), reading a book, singing or humming, rocking or snuggling. But it doesn’t have to include all of these things. It is important to establish a routine with a few recognizable soothing elements, but one that is not so elaborate that the baby is stimulated instead. If it feels like you’re doing gymnastics, you’re probably stimulating the baby.
Once you have started the bedtime routine, keep it moving in the direction of sleep. Bring everything you’ll need into the baby’s room before you get started. Try not to bring the baby out of the room or sleep area once the routine is in motion. Turn off the phone. If one or both parents arrive home during the routine, they should join the routine—with soft voices, no excitement, and no playing!
The goal of the routine is to teach the baby to relax enough that she can fall asleep on her own, in her crib or bassinet. If a baby can fall asleep only while feeding, she will need to feed multiple times during the night to return to sleep even if she is not hungry. Establishing a routine that ends with something soothing other than feeding will help the baby transition to self-soothing at bedtime and throughout the night.
Some people rely on bedtime routines with the same sort of superstition that baseball players employ at the plate. If a player gets a home run after rubbing the bat and taking three practice swings, he’ll keep up that routine to try to “make” it happen again. Likewise, parents who have a “good night” often try to recreate it by rigidly repeating everything they tried the night before, whether it’s sweet potatoes at dinner or hopping on one foot. That sort of rigidity is not necessary (or helpful). Focus on creating a few strong cues for sleep while spending some calm, cozy time together and you’ll establish a reasonable routine that you can keep up and enjoy!