Though Christmas is a distant memory for most of us, for some children, settling back into a bedtime routine after the excitement of December, a succession of late nights and staying with relatives can play havoc with their bedtime routine. January brings new resolutions and promises of routine, but let's face it, by the end of the month most people have given up and bad habits are creeping back in.
Sleep is a learned behaviour, and establishing and maintaining good bedtime habits will help your child fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up well rested. Once learnt, it’s a behaviour they will use and benefit from, from newborn right through the adolescent years and beyond. But how do you get them into a good bedtime routine and what if your child is now a toddler who still doesn't sleep?
This month Karen Mardon and Philippa Forsyth from St Albans based company Sleepthrough are here to share their top tips. These ladies literally saved our lives when our babies were about a year old. Any new parent will sympathise but when a new baby arrives, especially if it’s your first, nothing can prepare you for the onslaught of sleep deprivation. Karen and Philippa, both fully qualified Health Visitors quickly and gently resolved a few bad habits we had gotten into, and within 10 days our children were sleeping soundly (and touch wood, still are!).
The Baby Year
Here they share their top tips for getting your new baby into a bedtime routine.
1. It is generally best to be led by your baby for the first couple of months but from 8 weeks, you can start to establish a gentle routine before bedtime. Babies will start to produce Melatonin from around 12 weeks and this can be used to your advantage.
2. From about 5.30pm, reduce the boisterous play and initiate a time for relaxation. Reduce the stimulation, maybe look at some books together or have relaxing music or sing lullabies before your baby become over tired. Enjoy this time together.
3. Start the bedtime routine around 6pm. A brief, warm bath is a helpful start to the routine as this also increases the production of melatonin to induce a feeling of tiredness. Take your baby into the bedroom to be dried, gentle massage if applicable and into nightclothes.
4. It is a good idea not to put the ‘gro bag’ on at this point because you want your baby to be sufficiently awake to take a good feed.
5. Ensure that the bedroom lamp/light is still on and give baby the last milk feed. If baby drops off in between, gently nudge awake and try to finish the feed. Once they have finished, put baby into the ‘gro bag’, which will slightly rouse them.
6. You want to encourage baby to be drowsy but not asleep so they will start to learn to self-settle. Pop them into their cot, settle with your voice, gentle touch and stay with baby. Turn the light off
7. Avoid use of ‘white noise’, mobiles or any distractions once they are in the cot. These do not aid sleep long-term and can overstimulate a baby.
8. You can allow baby to ‘fuss’ a little as many babies will grizzle and move around until they are comfortable and then drift off to sleep. You may find a dummy or comforter is helpful.
9.. You want to keep the bedtime routine to about 45mins and the aim is for baby to be asleep by about 7pm. Most babies will sleep well for the first part of the night and will become steadily more wakeful as they enter the light sleep cycles. It can take a little practise for your baby to learn to self-settle but if you stay with them or pop in and out of the room, continually checking and reassuring, they will eventually fall asleep. If they are screaming, don’t leave them by themselves, comfort and then try again.
The Toddler Years
But I have a toddler, we hear you cry! We missed this whole process and most nights we spend hours negotiating with a toddler who has a million tricks up his sleeve that it is time to sleep. Is it too late?!
“In many ways a bedtime routine is more important for toddlers”
— Karen Mardon, Sleepthrough
"A good sleep routine can be introduced at any time during childhood but the management is different with an older child, it will take longer to resolve as they have become used to a certain way of behaving with regards to sleep," says Karen.
"In many ways a bedtime routine is MORE important for toddlers as they are usually very tired by the end of the day. Without a good bedtime routine and sleep pattern, toddlers quickly become over tired and this will impact on their behaviour and general wellbeing the following day. It will feel like a battle of wills at times, but if you continue a routine over and over again, slowly your toddler will accept it, because believe it or not, toddlers like routine no matter how much they protest at first!"
Top tips for initiating a bedtime routine in toddlers:
- It is common for children to get a second wind after dinner and race around the house for a mad half an hour before bed. This can actually be a sign they are already becoming overtired, so it is helpful to have a quiet period of play straight after dinner and the time for boisterous play should be earlier in the day.
- Sit together and look at books, maybe watch a short TV programme together (but allow at least half an hour between watching the TV and going to sleep). Puzzles, colouring, songs etc can be done together and make it a calm and relaxing atmosphere which are all wind down cues to bedtime.
- Most children enjoy a bath and it’s a great time to bond with your child with no distractions. Parents often comment that they become very excited, however this does not seem to adversely affect bedtime as a warm bath does eventually make most toddlers sleepy and provides a useful part of the structure of a bedtime routine. The bath needs to be no longer than about 20 minutes though.
- Once the bedtime routine has started, we would definitely recommend no screen time. The blue light emitted by screens will interfere with Melatonin production and can result in over stimulation which is not helpful just before bed.
- Instead, get into the habit of a book before bed and encourage this for as many years as you can, at first with you reading to your child, and as they get older, to themselves. Reading to your child is a great way of bonding and can become an important window of time for your child to raise any worries they might have in a calm and safe environment.
- Dim the lights before offering reassurance, a cuddle and a firm goodnight before switching off the light and leaving your child’s room.
Repeat, repeat, repeat is the bedtime mantra to live by with toddlers
Philippa and Karen are both qualified Health Visitors and have worked in Harpenden, Hertfordshire and the surrounding areas for many years. They decided to set up Sleepthrough in 2009, after seeing a gradual but steady change in the type of Health Visiting service provided within the NHS. Sleepthrough was established, specialising in supporting parents whose children are experiencing sleep difficulties. Following the success of the sleep counselling practice, built almost entirely on word of mouth and personal recommendation, Philippa and Karen have now extended their service to include all aspects of health visiting such as feeding issues, developmental concerns, behavioural difficulties and supporting parents through their children’s early years. They provide individual or group consultations within the privacy of your home. Karen and Philippa also provide workshops for groups of friends to discuss sleep and weaning issues. For further information, please see their website: www.sleepthrough.co.uk