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How to start a bedtime routine with your little one

Sleeping baby

Sleep, or lack of it, is a challenge for every parent and many parents of newborns struggle to settle into a routine that works for their baby and their own wellbeing. Many newborns will only settle when snuggled into their parent and at first this can be a wonderful experience. However, after weeks of sleep deprivation, it can become more of a challenge. This is when parents will often start to look into creating a bedtime routine for their little one.

Routines can work very well for a number of reasons, and they can be very important for children as they grow and learn. Keep reading to learn more about how you can set up routines with your little ones.

What age should you start a bedtime routine?

Before setting up a routine there are a few important factors to know about baby sleep. First of all, babies are not born with a circadian rhythm. This means that they are not born with an innate ability to understand the difference between night and day, and therefore will not automatically feel tired at night.

Secondly, during the first few weeks of their life, newborns sleep for up to 18 hours in every 24 hours and will wake every two to three hours for a feed. So, at first it is inevitable that every parent will experience sleepless nights.

Thirdly, newborn sleep cycles are very different to an adult. Newborns spend more time in REM sleep, which is lighter and more easily disturbed. This is vital for their brain development.

Lastly, a baby who has settled into a routine might respond differently when they experience developmental changes, such as growth spurts.

Most importantly, every baby will develop differently and respond to scenarios differently so it’s important to get to know your baby, and develop a routine that suits their needs, plus your own.

There is no reason why you can’t start a bedtime routine from their very first day, as this might help your enjoyment of those precious early days, but realistically little ones will not start to naturally develop a circadian rhythm until they are around six-eight weeks old.

What is a good bedtime routine for a newborn?

The key to developing a good bedtime routine is consistency. You will be able to teach your child triggers for bedtime easily with consistency from the start. Many parents follow the mantra: ‘bath, bottle, bed’, but this is by no means a prescription for success! More a reminder that establishing a routine means encompassing the same elements, in the same order, every single night so that your baby comes to acknowledge what is happening, feels safe and enjoys the experience too.

Stage one could be a case of kicking about on their change mat, enjoying a gentle massage, a simple wash and nappy change and a peaceful song. Try to stick to calming activities rather than things that excite your little one, as this will make it easier for them to drop off.

Stage two is a bedtime feed, such as a calming breastfeed or bottle, where you gently massage your little one’s head, shoulders and hands to help them relax while they drink.

Stage three can include a bedtime story in a dimly lit room, using the same relaxing nightlight, singing to them as you sway gently, and placing them in their bed, into a sleeping bag with more gentle massage. Whatever works for your little one and however you choose to soothe and calm your baby, the key is to consistently deliver the same experience night after night if you wish to establish a bedtime routine.

Some babies will respond well to a bedtime routine if you have followed a daytime sleep routine too, but others won’t, so don’t worry if you are unable to commit to a daytime sleep routine. The important thing to remember is that during the daytime when your little one wakes from a nap, make sure they are aware it is daytime. Let them see the daylight and have a nappy change while you chat to them and make them giggle so that they know it’s fine to be up and awake. During the night, keep feeds calm and nappy changes to a minimum. Use a dim light so that your little one starts to understand that nighttime is for sleeping.

A baby will wake frequently in the night, mostly for feeds and sometimes as they ebb and flow through lighter REM sleep. In time a baby can learn to settle themselves back to sleep, just as we do as adults throughout the night. This is a learning process and not something that is innate in their development, so it’s important that parents help guide and support their little ones with cues like dim lighting and soothing behaviour.

Disturbed sleep is inevitable and an important factor in a baby’s development. While some might start to sleep through as early as eight weeks, others can take many months. It’s normal for different babies to develop differently, but if you’re at all concerned about your little one’s sleep patterns, speak to your GP or other healthcare provider for reassurance.