Rooted in Routine: Everything you must know about getting your children to sleep, but are too tired to ask!
By Jill Barnum, MA
Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body for health and performance. Good quality and quantity sleep is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, and our kids need it just as much as we do. Sleep deprivation can lead to a loss of immunity to viral infection, cardiac issues, early onset Type 2 diabetes, influenza, cancer and obesity. In fact, quality sleep is the most important predictor of longevity, better than exercise and nutrition, although they too are important. So how do we train our children to become great sleepers?
Routine. Ritual. Rigamarole (wink). By any name, when it comes to children and bedtime, it’s simply too important to brush under the bed. Routine is, in fact, part of a strong sleep foundation to help children and their parents/caretakers transition from active day to restful night. While finding a solid groove is of value at any age, our focus here will be between one-year-old through late elementary school and beyond.
Like any ritual, the simpler it is, the more likely we are to implement and stick with it — but I’ll be the first to admit this takes trial and error. Each day and night are different, subject to what feels like countless variables, including how each person in the home is feeling both physically and mentally. Bigger families mean more variables. That thought alone may be exhausting – but rest easy.
While the notion of bedtime can conjure up thoughts of a sweet and relaxing end to the day filled with baths, stories, and cuddles (and sometimes it really is idyllic!), the more common reality for the average family is that it can become at least mildly stressful.
Details of the day, school snafus, random toddler antics, how well dinner went, potentially overtired kids, our list of adult responsibilities looming for “after bedtime”… all of these factors and more add a level of complexity and even not-so-subconscious pressure to the process. At one point, we’ve ALL thought or said: Let’s get these kids in BED already.
As a mom of four little ones between the ages of one and nine, I highly recommend parents get their hands on the book The Rested Child: Why Your Tired, Wired, or Irritable Child May Have a Sleep Disorder–and How to Help by W. Chris Winter, MD. It’s not only highly informative but also creatively delivered. To my surprise, I even found myself laughing at parts – yes, even when some of our current nighttime woes have me close to sleep-deprived tears (material for another article). The book jacket touts ‘raising healthy sleepers from the crib to college,’ yet he acknowledges that younger children “have sleep needs that are often rapidly changing, so what works well today may not be so perfect in six months. Be nimble!” NO TRUER WORDS. If there is anything we have learned in the last almost- decade as parents, it’s that every stage brings new challenges, and that just when we think we have something figured out, that something inevitably changes. Good thing we’re “nimble” here, right? Ha!
It can be so tempting to rush toward the finish as inherent stressors kick in, derailing the bedtime ritual that our little people might have come to expect. But through experience, we have learned this doesn’t help the cause. You may relate, and of course Dr. Winters himself acknowledges that kids can become masters at prolonging bedtime, which he advises dealing with appropriately and firmly to keep it from escalating. He suggests, “the stalling not only reduces time for sleep, but it often creates a stressful transition from wake time to sleep time as the night ends with irritation and frustration on the part of the parent, which works against a peaceful bedtime.” But alas, there is an answer that can be simpler than we think: creating pre-bed RITUALS to help guide us toward some much needed rest.
Winters continues, “Prior to bed, stick to an evening routine that has a lot of ‘mile markers’ leading up to bedtime. In other words, after dinner, make sure they know that it is warm bath, then stories, then bedtime at the designated time. After bath, remind them that it is stories, then bedtime. These reminders will keep your child from being ‘surprised by bedtime.’” Seems logical, but it’s easy to bypass simple opportunities for a more streamlined routine when so many uncontrollables challenge the flow.
Of course, add your own key steps – whatever such markers are key in your family. Older elementary kids might get their backpacks packed and by the door and lay out outfits for the next day – we’re big fans of any tasks that make for a smoother morning. As bedtime approaches, keep the house lights dim, steer clear of screens and other blue light, transition to only quiet play (sorry, Mr. 7, no more roughhousing until tomorrow), give/take baths and cozy into pajamas, offer a healthy snack as it applies, take care of those pearly whites, read aloud to them or have them read to you, pray together – you get the idea. Something feels out of order? No biggie. Every night is a new chance to do it over – and over – and over again. We may grow tired just thinking about it all, friends, but don’t lose faith.
The idea is that over time, these steps in the same general order will become ingrained habits. Just like a regular road trip where we notice certain familiar milestones along the way that make us feel more at ease, a solid set of pre-bedtime activities provides a similar sensation – beneficial not only for the youngest kids, but also teens and adults. When we know what’s happening next, even if we don’t necessarily like it, we are at least more at ease knowing it’s just what we do. Yes, there will always be hiccups, but those would happen regardless. At least in this instance, everyone knows the end goal.
Something we’re working on in our home is bridging the gap between our two older children (ages seven and nine) and our two youngest (ages one and two). Reading at least one children’s book together as a whole family is one such move everyone has come to anticipate in the dance we call bedtime. One of our personal favorites is Remmy and the Brain Train: Traveling Through the Land of Good Sleep, written by the world-renown sleep expert, Dr. James Maas – also known as our dear friend we affectionately call ‘Dr. Zeez’ after his character in this iconic book.
It’s a message tailored to children, but really to all, via a young boy named Remmy – appropriately named as a ‘nod’ to critical REM sleep – the sleep stage where most dreams and mind restoration (cognitive processing) occurs. Through Remmy’s nighttime train trip with Dr. Zeez to The Land of Good Sleep, his happiness, memory, energy, coordination, and academic skills ALL improve. What child or adult can resist that outcome? But don’t just read it aloud; sit back and enjoy the audio CD which turns the story into lyrics, complete with dramatic voices and authentic animal sounds chiming in. You’ll be singing along before you know it, especially the catchy chorus: “Come to the station, hop on the train. You don’t need a ticket – just pack up your brain!” Our big kids refer to recharging our smiles and recall Doctor Zeez’s prescription: “You need the whole nighttime – 9 hours, not less – To make all the stops on the Brain Train Express.” Even our littlest ones dance to the music and sing Toot Toot, which signals the turning pages. A cute and classic story with a lifelong lesson, this book is a perfect gift for new parents or young families – and certainly one we’ll pass along through our own generations. You can order a copy for your special sleepers here: Remmy and the Brain Train: Traveling Through the Land of Good Sleep
Finally, I’ll close with two tips from field experience with our Quad Squad.
- When possible, start the whole process earlier than you think is necessary and stagger what’s happening for each of the kids. Dividing and conquering, when you have a partner to team with, is also hugely helpful — this is especially key with multiple children who have unique needs during the same window. Obviously, older children can be more self-sufficient with certain tasks that require little to no guidance, while babies and toddlers need more hands-on parenting and time. At a given moment in our routine, our oldest is packing her schoolbag, our second is bathing, our toddler is enjoying books read by Daddy, and baby is cozy in my arms, rocking and nursing – where I’d like to keep him forever. Then the music changes, and we shuffle – think of it as a game of Musical Rooms!
- Remember this phrase I proudly just coined: Blinders on for Bedtime. Stay the course and keep the end in mind. From experience, it’s SO easy to get sidetracked, especially when the whole process is more all-over-the-place and takes longer than planned. Resist the urge to sneak in other ‘necessary though untimely’ household tasks with the allure of crossing something off the to-do list while you’re waiting. An example might be jumping the bedtime-ship to head downstairs and throw in the next load of laundry, etc. Sometimes this pays off, but often it just further extends bedtime.
Does our routine always smoothly flow? Absolutely not. But is anything ever 100% consistent with little ones – or even adults? Also no. Yet despite any stalling, setbacks, or displays of overtired emotion that occur, at least the message is clear and consistent: quality rest is important for us all, and we as a family are committed to honoring that for each and every member. We are not giving up or giving in, even nights when bedtime is a metaphorical trainwreck. No, the only train trips we want are the magical kind.
And when recognizable mile markers help us guide our tribes toward a great night’s rest, our fight or flight isn’t triggered, and our after-bedtime responsibilities suddenly feel much less daunting, too.
What’s that you promise? Fewer meltdowns (yours and theirs)? Yes, please.
And more sweet moments closing our nights, soaking in their littleness, cherishing their quickly-passing stages – grateful for the day’s blessings and the chance to start fresh tomorrow? Absolutely.
Rooted in Routine is where you’ll find us at bedtime for the next several years – hopefully joining Remmy every night in The Land of Good Sleep. I think we can agree that we ALL need the rest more than ever. And don’t forget to show and tell our kids that we, too, follow all the rules of good bedtime-rituals – because life is just better when we do. Sweet REMs!
Jill Barnum, MA is a sleep educator who serves as a vice president of Sleep for Success (www.sleepforsuccess.info) an organization providing wellness and performance presentations for corporate, medical, academic, and professional athletic audiences. Jill has 17 years experience teaching high school in Charlevoix, Michigan and is on a mission to foster stronger sleep habits for parents, students, children and herself.