Routine, Routine, Routine…
Every one, adults and children alike benefit hugely from having a proper bed time routine. Children thrive on routine – they have only a small understanding of the world around them and it is a very confusing and daunting place to be. Routine means they know what to expect of the day and lets them know where they fit into their world. This gives comfort and security, and thus confidence.
We are given and follow many recommendations when it comes to putting our little people down to sleep, and while there is truth in these recommendations, having only half the information can inhibit sleep rather than improving it.
1 – Late afternoon play time
Play time in the late afternoon is so important for little ones to expend energy they may have stored up from a less active day. Intense play can be disruptive to sleep. High amounts of physical activity before bed can keep the muscles from relaxing properly and is likely to lead to a restless night.
Rather than allowing your little one to run riot to burn off energy, “deep” movement should be encouraged – this includes climbing, pushing and, especially in the case of younger babies, swinging. These activities stimulate the whole muscle and help to balance the body, allowing the body and muscles to relax more easily and more deeply.
2 – Dinner time
Toddlers are notorious picky eaters. What is their favourite one day can be rejected the next. Rather than worrying about how many vegetables your little one is getting in the evenings, rather focus on ensuring they eat a carbohydrate rich dinner which will make them feel fuller for longer and help them to sleep more soundly. Lunch should be rich in proteins and use day time meals for introducing new foods. For a toddler who just won’t eat, a bowl of oatmeal or plain, full fat yogurt with banana make an excellent evening meal. They will eventually come around to eating a variety of foods and a more balanced dinner, but for a time, it is okay to focus on eating a meal that will help them to sleep.
3 – Bath time
Bath time is one of the most important parts of a little one’s bed time routine. The warm water helps them relax and switch off from the day. The mistake most of us make though is making bath time too long and too much fun! Until your little one is around 2 to 3 years old, bath time should be unstimulating and kept to under 10 minutes long. If your little one initiates play time, by all means go along with it, but let them lead the play and don’t encourage it to go further.
Along with helping you to relax, the warm water of a bath stimulates the production of melatonin, the “sleep hormone”. This is enhanced by the momentary drop in body temperature as you climb out of the warm water into the cool air before getting wrapped up warmly again. The time frame for this stimulation of melatonin is a maximum of 10 minutes. Much longer than that, especially if the water cools down, and your child will get a second wind, making the bath a stimulating activity rather than a relaxing one.
4 – Rocking to sleep
When our babies are small, the only way (and the best way) to get them to sleep is by rocking them – mimicking the action that made them sleep in the womb. However, once they have past the 3-4 month stage, rocking ceases to be beneficial. This is for two reasons. Firstly, you will notice that the older your baby gets, the longer it takes for him to fall asleep, and the more of a workout rocking becomes. Our little ones who are so in tune with us find themselves being taken quickly from a place of being ready to sleep to finding themselves in a situation that they perceive as very stressful – they are with a parent who has an elevated body temperature and heart rate (from the workout of rocking!). Rather than putting them to sleep, our rocking keeps our little ones awake!
The second reason rocking our little ones to sleep (while we still can) is not the best idea is that it puts them into a deep sleep too quickly. This means that they do not go through the necessary stages, including REM, to have restful sleep. Essentially, even though they may sleep well, they do not get the full benefit of the sleep. REM is the stage of sleep where we process what has happened during the day and our brains form neural pathways.
5 – Sleep associations
From around 3-4 months old, we start to form sleep associations. These are specific things that need to be in place for us to be able to fall asleep. For an adult, this could be darkness, a pillow and a warm duvet. When we wake in the middle of the night, we can adjust our pillow and fall asleep again very quickly – so quickly in fact that we seldom remember waking at all. We need to recreate the same environment when we wake as when we fell asleep, to make it easy to go back to sleep without any difficulty.
The same is true for babies and children. If we have rocked them to sleep, or let them go to sleep having their hand held or being sung to, they will wake searching for the same environment during the night. When they can’t recreate it themselves, they wake fully and call to us for help to go back to sleep. For this reason, it is so important to teach our little ones as soon as possible to go to sleep in their own bed (even if this is a crib in your room), with as little external input as possible. From as young as 6 weeks, you can start training your baby to go to sleep alone by putting them in bed while they are drowsy but not fully asleep.
Don’t become anxious if things take a little while – Rome wasn’t built in a day and the steps from being held and rocked to sleep to being able to go to sleep alone are gradual ones, more so the younger your baby is.