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David Baxter PhD

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Bedtime Rituals: Establishing a Nighttime Routine for You and Your Child
By Heather K. Scott

You stand at the crib in your baby's room, the lullaby softly singing from the nursery stereo is barely audible over the din of your baby's frustrated cries. The clock in the living room chimes 11 p.m., and you and your partner—for the third time this evening—are trying to put your baby to sleep. As you pick up your crying child and bounce her gently around the room, you wonder if she will ever run out of steam.

Nearly every parent has been in this situation: a late night session of desperately trying to comfort an inconsolable baby or toddler. It is stressful and difficult, to say the least. But, believe it or not, these trying situations for both parent and child can often be avoided with the implementation of a consistent bedtime ritual.

Establishing a bedtime routine not only provides a predictable pattern for your child to recognize—it is also a bonding opportunity for you both and creates healthy, lifelong sleep habits. "Your baby can't tell time, so she is looking to you for queues," says Dr. Harvey Karp, noted pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and the accompanying DVD/Video. Dr. Jodi Mindell, pediatric sleep expert and author of Sleeping Through the Night, adds, "Your baby will be more relaxed if she knows what's coming next. The more relaxed she is, the more likely she'll go to bed easily and fall asleep quickly."

Setting the Stage
Your bedtime ritual begins, strangely enough, first thing in the morning. And it continues throughout the daytime hours. "A peaceful daytime is likely to lead to a restful night," say Drs. William and Martha Sears. "The more attached you are to your baby during the day and the more baby is held and calmed during the day, the more likely this peacefulness is to carry through into the night." If your child is having troubles calming down after the sun sets, take stock of her day's activities. Is she getting enough time in your arms or in the care of a nurturing babysitter? Is your daycare provider a good match for your child? The Sears note, "We have noticed babies who are carried in baby slings for several hours a day settle better at night. Baby-wearing mellows the infant during the day, behavior that carries over into restfulness at night."

Dr. Karp concurs. "When I was a fellow at UCLA, I read of cultures where parents could calm babies in under 60 seconds. . .but, our culture is so different. We don't carry our babies 24 hours a day. If you begin establishing [good sleep] habits from the first days of life, it soon becomes automatic."

It goes without saying that most parents try to spend as much time as their schedules allow with their children. But if you find your busy work schedule prevents you from spending a large quantity of time with your child, remember that quality is what is truly important. Set aside time during the day to devote to your child, take a walk together, play a game, or spend a little alone time on the couch just cuddling. If you use a daycare, you may even wish to sit in for a morning and observe how much one-on-one interaction your child gets with her providers.

Transition Time
A couple of hours prior to your child's bedtime, put away your child's toys and begin transitioning from active playtime to passive playtime. If your babe is old enough, have her help and say "good night" to each toy as you put it away for the evening. Pull out a book or a teddy bear, and sit together to read or cuddle for a short while. Or watch a video—the Baby Einstein collection provides a positive interactive visual experience for parents and children to share. Later, turn down the lights and TV or stereo, and reduce the stimuli within your child's immediate surroundings. These "subtle preparations," as Dr. Karp refers to them, are beneficial steps in any bedtime ritual.

Food, Glorious Food
Dinnertime is a part of everyone's evening routine—but not often thought of as part of a bedtime ritual. What your baby eats now, and the atmosphere in which she eats, can affect how she'll sleep later. Serving children rich, mild, satisfying foods—such as avocado, or mixing a bit of olive oil into vegetables or baby food—provides healthy fats for growing brains, and simultaneously satisfies tummies for the long stretch of sleep ahead. Encouraging your child to eat a filling, healthful meal before bedtime can help prevent her from waking up hungry during the night.
Differentiate this meal from other daytime meals by making it a quieter affair. Turn the TV off, mute the ringer on your phone, and dim the lights during your meal. Use this time to focus on your family and enjoy each other's quiet company.

Spa Baby
A favorite step in many families' bedtime rituals is bath time. There are several bath milks, oils, and bubble baths on the market with safe and natural ingredients to help calm your baby. Burt's Bees, Mustela, and Kiss My Face all make bath products with soothing aromatherapy for babies and children.

If you are bathing a very young baby, refrain from including anything that might irritate her skin in the bath. However, you can still treat your child to the benefits of aromatherapy. Position an infant tub inside your own bathroom tub; fill the outer tub with a shallow level of warm water (careful to not let it overflow into your infant's tub), close the bathroom door, and add a couple of drops of essential oil to the outer bath. The warm, relaxing steam and aroma will add an extra bonus to bath time.

Bath time is also a good time to brush teeth and hair and talk about the day together. For toddlers, it is good to process all of the day's happenings and feelings. Also, remind your little one that it is getting close to bedtime (toddlers are discovering what is negotiable and non-negotiable in their routines—gentle reminders that bedtime is a fixed event can help prevent battles when it is time to finally say "goodnight").

Applying a bit of baby oil or lotion after a bath is the perfect time to perform baby massage. A growing number of pediatricians advocate massage as a sleep helper—and studies have found it to be a tonic for your baby's nervous and immune systems. The Touch Research Institute, a distinguished team of researchers, representing Duke, Harvard, Maryland, and other universities based at the University of Miami, reports that "infants who received massage therapy before bedtime by a parent experienced less difficulty falling asleep and better sleep patterns."

Perform this ritual in your child's room or nursery and keep the lights off or down low. If you are confused about how to perform baby massage, there is a plethora of tips and resources online. is a good place to start. This site includes easy to follow steps, as well as illustrations for performing simple baby massage techniques.
Finish spa time together by playing soft music or singing a special bedtime song together.

Day is Done, Gone the Sun
The time has come for that final bedtime story, nursing session, and tuck-in. If bedtime has been difficult for you and your child in the past, undoubtedly this is a stressful time. Be careful not to give away physical signs that reveal your apprehension. Children are highly observant and read your face, gestures, and postures to help them understand how you are feeling. Keep these moments leading up to bedtime light and affectionate. Speaking softly to your child, smiling often, and sharing loving touches and kisses will relax your baby and let her know that everything is okay—and that you are here for her, even after she falls asleep.

A bedtime story is a part of many family bedtime rituals. Establish a special night-time reading spot, whether it is in your child's bed or in a chair in her nursery, and use this spot only for nighttime and naptime preparations. This will help your baby make the association that it is now time to go to sleep. For nursing babies, you can do the same: choose a special spot to nurse your child or give her one last nighttime bottle and keep that spot as a special part of your bedtime ritual (remember to never put a baby down with a bottle; this can be detrimental to new baby teeth).

For younger children and newborns, swaddling is a beneficial final step in preparing your baby for a good night's sleep. A study done in 2002 at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, found that babies went to sleep more quickly after being swaddled. The study further showed that babies who were swaddled, or wrapped tightly in cloth before being put down to sleep, were also more likely to sleep on their backs—a position that is now recommended by most pediatricians for prevention of SIDS.

An important part of creating a bedtime ritual is developing that final moment when you tuck in your child and wish them sweet dreams. Saying "goodnight" holds many meanings for little ones. Babies will come to associate the words with the action and know this is now the time to close their eyes and go to sleep. And it is important for toddlers to know that this is the last step in their ritual. Use tuck-in time to remind your older child just how much you love her, go over what you enjoyed about the past day together, and tell your little one that you look forward to seeing her in the morning.

Creating a bedtime ritual for you and your child also includes all the minor little steps and minutiae of the evening as well. Try to perform regular tasks in the same order every night—this will also help your child see that bedtime is coming. For example, after your child finishes her dinner, you may give her the same toy to play with or book to page through as you or your partner do the dishes, prepare her bed, and draw a bath. Try to keep each step in its place: dinner, quiet play time, bath, massage, bedtime story, tuck-in chat, bed. This repetition can be very soothing for your child, and she will come to anticipate and welcome each step.

Establishing a bedtime ritual is a personal experience, and will undoubtedly include a bit of trial and error as you figure out what will work best for you and your baby. Be flexible. Keep things simple for younger children; and remember that whatever you decide to incorporate into your ritual will need to be consistently followed (reading three stories each night to your toddler or playing the soundtrack to her favorite Disney movie are not the best ideas). Choose calming rituals: reading, singing, touch, and cuddling are all good activities and good places to start. No matter what you include, try not to rush through the steps—keep your ritual sacred and devote your full attention to your child. Never take away a part of your ritual as punishment—let your child know that no matter what happens during the day, you will always have this special, uninterrupted time to share together.
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