Bedtime Routine Tips To Get Kids To Sleep On Time
Pediatrician’s top tips that have even worked with his own kids!
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
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Years ago when I told my parents that I wanted to be a pediatrician, my dad’s first response was: “If you write a baby sleep book, you’ll be rich!”
I haven’t yet taken him up on that (so far), but he had a point. Walk into the parenting section of any bookstore and you’re instantly accosted by dozens of books claiming to have the secrets to solve your child’s sleep problems. The baby book industry knows that if there is one concern shared almost universally amongst parents, it’s how to help their kids get better sleep.
But it’s not just babies whose nighttime shenanigans can drive parents bananas. Toddlers and preschoolers notoriously stall when the lights go out, asking for one more drink or one extra bedtime story. And older kids might constantly push for a later bedtime, or take forever when you send them upstairs to simply change into pajamas and brush their teeth.
No matter what ages your children are, chances are that at some point you’re going to need to reevaluate and reimagine their bedtime rituals to help them get to bed on time—and to help you keep your sanity.
After over eleven years practicing pediatrics and thirteen years as a dad, these are the tips I’ve found to work the best—for my own kids and for the families I’ve worked with:
The Best Bedtime Playlist
Once my kids were old enough to start getting ready for bed themselves, my wife and I thought we’d hit the jackpot. The kids were showing independence—and we got an extra 5 minutes to ourselves! Hooray! But those 5 minutes soon turned into 15, then 20, then 30…and the kids still weren’t ready for bed. Instead of getting dressed and brushing their teeth, they began to use the time we’d send them upstairs to play, read, argue, and do just about anything other than what they were supposed to be doing.
But then we discovered a magic tool that got our kids ready on their own and in less than 10 minutes. Not only that, we were able to use this tool successfully without fail for at least a full year!
What was that magic tool? The bedtime playlist.
We told the kids the deal: when the playlist started, they had to go upstairs—and then they had to be finished getting dressed, brushed, and whatever else they wanted by the time the playlist was done. They got some ownership over this new plan (a huge selling point for kids) and picked out the songs we would use—they’d rush upstairs to the thrill of the Pokémon theme song, dance to “Pajama Time” from Philadelphia Chickens, mellow out to “Moon Moon Moon” by Laurie Berkner, and wrap up with a family sing-along to “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton.
It wasn’t long before the routine really took hold. It was pretty amazing, actually—I could start the playlist from another room and immediately hear the kids rushing upstairs after the opening notes of the first song. And because they knew the order of the songs—they’d picked them out, after all—they also knew exactly how much time they had left and when they had to wrap up. Our “Go To Bed” playlist was highly effective and turned bedtime ritual misery into musical fun. Best of all—the kids were happy about it each and every night.
If this has happened to you, you’re not alone:
You have your four-year-old all ready and tucked into bed. Teeth have been brushed, songs have been sung, stories read. You lean in for one last kiss goodnight and instead of “I love you,” your little one says, “I’m hungry.”
This one probably gave me more gray hairs than I’d like to admit. “We’ve just spent 30 minutes winding down for bed—and you’re hungry now? At the very end??” Visions of angry dentists berating my parenting skills would swim through my head as I’d wonder whether it’s okay to skip brushing all over again after just one little snack…
If your child is a repeat offender when it comes to last-minute snack requests at bedtime, there’s a simple and effective solution: Last Call.
Right before it’s time to brush teeth, tell your kids that it’s Last Call—that this is their final chance for a (healthy) snack or a drink of anything other than water. Expect that some kids will test you and push back at first, trying once or twice to puppydog-eyes a snack out of you once the bedtime routine is done. But if you stick to your guns, you’ll soon find that they get the idea and Last Call effectively ends any last-minute food requests.
An External Bad Guy: The Sign
Young kids are notorious for stalling at bedtime, sometimes starting to do so before age 2 and often peaking around age 3 and 4. One more kiss, one more story, stay just a little bit longer. And many of us parents find it terribly hard not to give in—you love your kids, and it can feel cruel to turn down their requests for more you.
And while an extra story or cuddle here and there certainly isn’t a problem, when the stalling becomes routine and bedtime gets extended to be longer and longer, there can be a serious impact on your child’s sleep schedule. Not only that, for some kids satisfying the extra requests doesn’t necessarily help to make them feel more comfortable—many children can spend that whole extra snuggle or story feeling a sort of “micro-anxiety,” anxiously anticipating the moment you’re going to leave rather than enjoying the extra time they’re getting.
In these and other instances, it’s often best give your child a clear, predictable routine—as it’s the unpredictability of occasional extra time that leads to intermittent reinforcement, worsens that micro-anxiety, and prolongs bedtime stalling.
One of the best tools to use is an “external bad guy”—something that isn’t you, is fairly unchangeable, and reliably shows your child exactly what to expect. Post a sign next to your child’s bed or crib. The sign should list all the steps of the bedtime routine (including pictures is key for little kids), and you can point out each step as you do it. When your child asks for “one more” something, walk them through the steps on the sign to show that the bedtime routine is done and now it’s time for sleep. Like most behavior change tools, it may take a few nights for your child to accept that this is how things will be—but having the reliability and predictability of seeing the bedtime routine steps laid out on the sign can eventually help your child transition to sleep more comfortably.
A Routinely Scheduled Routine
If you ever want to induce parental guilt amongst modern moms and dads, or pick a surefire fight with grandparents, just bring up the question of what time kids should go to bed.
While you’ll find many who staunchly argue that kids should have an earlier bedtime than many currently do, the truth is that bedtime is a social construct with the time kids go to sleep varying widely between different cultures. What ultimately matters most is that kids get the right total amount of sleep (which is actually my reason for arguing for earlier bedtimes than what many kids have).
When a child’s bedtime varies from night to night, it becomes hard for them to routinely get enough sleep for healthy growth and development. More specifically to our current discussion, you might find that a kid who doesn’t have a consistent bedtime often faces multiple nighttime struggles—things like crankiness or a second wind, waking in the middle of the night, or being so tired they take a late nap that disrupts bedtime even more.
If having a consistent bedtime is hard for you and your child, one tool that might help is a sleep training clock like The Tot Clock. These clocks change color when it’s time for bed and time to wake up—offering a clear reminder to everyone (not just your child!) that it’s bedtime. They’re also great for kids who get out of bed too early in the morning, as you can remind them that they can’t get up to play until the clock changes color. Just like the other tools I’ve mentioned, it may take time for your child to agree to the plan, but if you stick with it your child will be one step closer to good sleep habits.
Don’t Just Remove Blue Light
For the last several years, there has been plenty of buzz about the danger of too much “blue light” before bed. Receptors in our eyes recognize blue light—which happens to be emitted by many of our screen-based devices—and essentially tell the brain not to release melatonin, a crucial hormone for healthy sleep. The easy way to remember this is to think of a blue sky in the daytime keeping you awake—after all, that’s exactly how this system is supposed to work.
Because of this, we’ve heard time and again that we should make sure our kids are off screens at least 30-60 minutes before bed in order to help prevent the melatonin-blocking effect of blue light.
But what if in addition to removing blue light there was something we could add in to help our kids fall asleep more easily?
Well, that something might actually be red light.
In a very small, but oft-quoted study of 20 athletes, researchers exposed half of them to red light for 30 minutes a night for two weeks. The other athletes weren’t exposed to any particular light therapy. At the end of the study, those who were exposed to red light before bed showed improved sleep, higher melatonin levels, and—get this—could run farther in 12 minutes than they could before the study. The placebo group showed none of these changes.
Now before you go out to buy a dozen red lightbulbs for your kids’ rooms, know that this is still an emerging concept and that there haven’t been any significantly large, well-done studies to confirm or refute this red light theory.
Still, we do know that red light at least doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on melatonin release the way blue light does. So if your child has a hard time winding down at night, a family walk at sunset or even sitting by the window after dinner might help give their body cues that it’s time to begin releasing melatonin and transitioning to bed. At the very least, time outdoors or a story by the window offers a great bonding moment that can be a lovely part of your family bedtime routine.
The Cloud Story
Sometimes it’s just plain hard to fall asleep at night. We’ve all been there—not just our restless kids, but ourselves, too.
My absolute favorite—and highly effective—tool to help kids settle and relax enough to fall asleep is The Cloud Story.
The Cloud Story is a sleep meditation, a guided story in which kids imagine their body relaxing piece by piece as they float on a soft, fluffy cloud. It’s a type of exercise called an “autogenic training,” an activity in which you learn to create the sensation of relaxation in individual parts of your body.
What I love about The Cloud Story is it does two things: First, it helps kids learn how to calm their bodies down and shows that they can control some of their bodily sensations. Second, by practicing the techniques in The Cloud Story, kids can become more attuned to how their bodies feel—meaning that they’ll be better able to recognize when they’re not calm or relaxed in the future, AND they’ll also now have the skill they need to help themselves get the relaxed feeling they need.
Best of all, The Cloud Story can be listened to and practiced any time, anywhere. It makes a great, soothing addition to a child’s bedtime routine.
You can play The Cloud Story for your child any time by playing the video below (bookmark it so you always have it available!):
Bedtime Routine Tip for Parents
I’ve used almost every single one of these tools over the years with my own kids—often with great success. In fact, my kids still request The Cloud Story to help them sleep a few times a month, and it works 99% of the time.
And the fact that I’ve had to use so many bedtime routine approaches with my kids shouldn’t be discouraging—instead, it’s just a sign of the reality that kids’ sleep habits change over time. That’s why it’s so important to have plenty of tools like the ones above at the ready.
So when your kids’ bedtime is a struggle, know that you’ve got options. And if all goes well, then soon you, too, could imagine yourself floating blissfully on a soft, comfy cloud, feeling peaceful, content, and happy.
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a pediatrician and host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast. He may or may not have taken a nap right after writing this…