Baby bedtime routines: How to start one, what to do, and why they're important

A bedtime routine is an important part of teaching your baby healthy sleep habits. Young children who have bedtime routines have been shown to fall asleep faster, and have fewer instances of night waking.

Your baby will be more relaxed if they know what's coming next – and the more relaxed they are, the more likely they'll go to bed easily and fall asleep quickly. A bedtime routine is often good for parents, too. It's a special time set aside for you to spend with your baby, something you can plan on. In the long run, routines can help your child be a better sleeper (which means you'll get more sleep, too).

When to start a baby bedtime routine

The sooner you establish a bedtime routine, the better. When your baby is as young as six weeks old, start following a set pattern every night. While six weeks is too young for your baby to stick to a regular schedule (see our article on newborn sleep), they'll still come to appreciate the consistency and predictability.

There's no harm in helping your baby learn that it's time to wind down, even if they don't immediately fall asleep. If your baby is older and you never started a formal bedtime routine with them, or you used to have one but fell out of the habit, it's never too late to give it a try or recommit to the routine.

Families have different traditions and expectations of what a bedtime routine looks like. The whole routine might just be a few minutes or might take around an hour, depending on how many elements you want to include.

What's most important is listening to your baby's cues and making sure you have enough energy at the end of the day to follow through with the routine. Don't adopt a routine that will be exhausting or overwhelming for you – it's fine to keep it simple.

How to start a bedtime routine

Start early enough in the evening, so you have time to get through the sequence before bedtime. For young babies especially, you may find that it's best to keep it short and sweet: diaper change and jammies, feeding, a kiss, and turning on the white noise machine.

To start a bedtime routine, think about activities your baby seems to find soothing. If reading a book or singing a lullaby seem calming to them, that might be something to try. Instead of immediately setting up an elaborate routine, try just one or two things at first. Watch how your baby responds, and add or take away elements of the routine based on that. 

You might find babies (and you!) are quite tired in the evening and don't want to engage in multiple activities, which is totally valid. You also might find it's not possible to do the full routine every night. Your baby will be okay if you miss part or all of a routine every once in a while, or if you need to shorten it to accommodate your own exhaustion or other family members' schedules. 

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What to do in your bedtime routine

Experts recommend including four main components in your bedtime routine: nutrition (like nursing or a bottle), hygiene (bath time, oral care, skin care), communication (reading, singing), and physical contact (cuddling, baby massage). Most experts also recommend choosing a consistent time to begin your wind-down routine.

The following bedtime routine ideas have worked for other parents. Maybe you'll find something here that's right for you.

Let off some steam. Sometimes it helps to let your baby get any pent-up energy out of their system before you try to settle them down for the night. So feel free to dance around with them to a favorite song or let them bounce in the bouncer if they're in the mood. As long as you follow up any rowdy play with something calmer and quieter before they go to sleep, it can be a good first step toward bedtime.

Give them a soak. One of the most popular parts of many bedtime rituals is a bath. Sitting in warm water can be a soothing experience, and getting your baby warm and clean and dry is a great way to ease them into bedtime. If your baby gets excited during baths or doesn't enjoy them, though, it's probably better to leave them out of the nighttime ritual. Babies don't need a bath more than three times per week, so don't feel bad about forgoing it if it's not a pleasure for you both. Frequent bathing can dry out their skin.

Give the last feeding. Give your baby a bottle or breastfeed – some parents nurse to sleep, while others put their baby down drowsy but awake (which some experts advise so they get used to falling asleep on their own). Many parents time this right before bed, so their baby sleeps as long as possible before needing another feeding. 

Take care of business. Your baby's getting-ready-for-bed routine can include wiping their gums or brushing their teeth, changing their diaper, and getting into their pajamas. It's a good idea to start the toothbrushing habit as early as possible so your baby gets used to it.

Play a game. Playing a quiet game in the living room or on the floor of your baby's bedroom is a great way to spend some fun time with them before bed. Your game can be as simple as a round of peekaboo. Whatever entertains your baby without getting them overly excited is fine.

Have a chat. Bedtime is a nice chance for parents to spend some time talking to their baby. (It's fine that your baby's not old enough to converse with you.) Simply review the day for them – they love the sound of your voice, and chatting to your baby encourages their own language development. 

Say “Goodnight Moon.” Many babies enjoy being carried around the room or the house and saying goodnight to favorite toys, people, and other objects, much as the baby rabbit and his mother do in Goodnight Moon.

Read a bedtime story. Rivaling the bath as an all-time favorite nighttime ritual is reading a bedtime story. Not only will your baby learn to recognize new words – studies have shown that language skills and even intelligence can depend on a baby's daily exposure to a large vocabulary. They'll also benefit from time spent with you. See our list of favorite bedtime stories.

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Sing a song. Singing a lullaby is a time-tested way to help a sleepy baby drift off. Your baby loves hearing their favorite sound – your voice – and the soft, soothing melody may calm them. If you can't remember the words or tune to your favorite ditties, turn to our lullaby library for a refresher course.

Play some music. Play lullabies, classical music, or other kids' favorites while you settle your baby to sleep. Leaving it on at a low volume after you leave can help ease the transition from being awake to falling asleep. A sound machine may soothe them, too, with the added benefit of drowning out outside noise.

Try baby massage. Babies need touch as one of their most basic needs, and it's even essential to their developing brain. Massage can fulfill this need and serve as an excellent pre-bed calming activity. Simply lay your baby on a soft surface and use baby oil or lotion. You can remove all of your baby's clothes, if you're in a warm room, and gently move your hands around their skin. Pay attention to your baby's reaction to note anything they find enjoyable, or don't really like.

— Update: 04-02-2023 — found an additional article Should Your Baby Have a Bedtime Routine? from the website for the keyword bedtime routine for infants.

Bedtime routines offer comfortable predictability to the end of the day, which is important for getting quality sleep. It’s true if you’re an adult … and it’s especially true if you’re an infant.

Research shows that a consistent bedtime routine can help your child sleep better with fewer and shorter late-night wakeups. An added bonus? Parents typically improve their moods in those situations, too.

So, what goes into making a baby bedtime routine that makes DreamLand a regular stop? For directions, let’s turn to pediatrician Heidi Szugye, DO, IBCLC.

Bedtime routines for babies

Babies enter this world on their own clock. They don’t really know the difference between 2 p.m. and 2 a.m., after all. That’s because they have yet to develop their circadian rhythm, the 24-hour internal clock that controls sleep-wake cycles.

So, just like you teach a baby to walk and talk, you can also help get their internal clock synched with the world around them. (Look to start sleep training when your baby is 4 to 6 months old.)

“Your goal should be to set up a nice and consistent bedtime routine that is calming and will help them wind down,” explains Dr. Szugye. “Follow the routine every night and your baby will begin to understand when it’s time to sleep.”

Try these six tips to set a sleepy tone:

1. Focus on feeding

Nobody sleeps well with a grumbling tummy. Feeding your baby about 15 minutes before they head to their crib can help make them a little drowsy, notes Dr. Szugye.

2. Bath time before bedtime

A soothing bath 90 minutes to an hour before bedtime helps trigger sleep. The reason? It all has to do with your baby’s core body temperature.

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A warm bath stimulates blood circulation to your baby’s hands, feet and extremities. This thermoregulatory response leads to a cooling of your baby’s internal core — a pattern also associated with sleep.

(For the record, this isn’t just a baby thing, either. A warm bath or shower ahead of bed can help anyone snooze.)

3. Read a book aloud

The magic of a good story extends to sleep. Slowing down and reading a book to your baby begins the ramp-it-down process that leads to better sleep, says Dr. Szugye. (Consider the cuddle time while reading an added bonus.)

And here’s something that might help you sleep better, too: Hearing books read aloud will help your baby build language skills, among other benefits.

4. Sing a song

Lullabies date to ancient times, and there’s a reason why gentle, melodic verses like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” continue to be a bedtime staple: Calming music leads to ZZZs, notes Dr. Szugye.

In fact, these tunes are so effective that research shows that babies relax even when hearing lullabies sung in a foreign language.

5. Avoid screen time

Time in front of a TV or tablet screen won’t just occupy your child during the day. It may also keep them up at night.

Researchers found that 13-month-old infants lost a minute of nighttime sleep for every minute spent on a touchscreen device during the day. The sleep they did get was poorer, too, with more nighttime awakenings.

And 3-month-olds who watched TV for 34 minutes average 22 minutes less sleep over the course of a day. (Just five minutes on a touchscreen device costs that same baby 13 minutes of sleep.)

“Try to stay away from anything that might overstimulate your child right before bed,” advises Dr. Szugye.

6. Be consistent

Bedtime should offer structure to the end of the day. So, start your child’s routine at the same time every night. Go in the same order, too. (Maybe bath time, reading, quick snack and then a lullaby, for instance.)

And most of all, turn those lights off around the same time.

“Consistency really is the key,” explains Dr. Szugye. “Once you get a routine that works, stick with it. You don’t want to make drastic changes that could disrupt the routine or lead to new, bad habits.”

Stay strong, parents!

Will it be easy to maintain a routine? Heck, no. Very few things in parenthood fall in the “easy” category. There may be tears at bedtime. There may be trips out of the bedroom once your child is mobile and out of a crib. There may be sleep regressions.

“There are always challenges,” says Dr. Szugye, “but try your best to stick to the routine once you get it set.”

Here’s why.

“Sleep is so important for growing babies,” stresses Dr. Szugye. “They’re developing so fast, whether it’s language, motor skills or just overall behavior — and adequate sleep helps with everything. So, the more you do to help them get their sleep, the better off they’ll be.”

To hear more from Dr. Szugye on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode “Babies and Bedtime.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast are available every Wednesday.


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About the Author: Tung Chi