The 4 B's of Bedtime
I like to think of helping young kids get a healthy night's sleep as both an art and a science. On the “science" side of the sleep equation, there are all sorts of relevant considerations – from pacifier and safe sleep recommendations to the understanding of common sleep patterns and problems including (but not limited to) the night terrors, nightmares, and bedwetting - that often leave parents and children more than a bit weary.
And then there's what I like to refer to as the “art" of achieving sleep success, which I have found to be at least as important for ensuring that everyone gets their Z's. If you happen to be the parent of a child who has effortlessly learned to jump into bed and fall asleep relatively independently, consistently, and without much of a fuss, then by all means count yourself fortunate and just be sure you encourage your child to continue this healthy habit. For any parents out there who may struggle to achieve sleep success, however, the “art" part typically involves figuring out what works best for your child and his/her behavior, temperament, and personality.
For anyone looking for a realistic approach to achieving a more “idyllic" bedtime routine, I suggest starting out by adopting the attitude that learning to fall asleep independently and routinely get a good night's sleep is, in fact, a learning experience. After all, sleep happens to be one of those activities, like breast-feeding, that while “natural", does not always come naturally. As you commit yourself to helping teach your child this important skill, allow me to offer you a simple yet effective strategy for sleep success.
The following healthy bedtime routine involves what I have long referred to as the “4 B's" of bedtime. These sleep habits can be easily implemented (in the order listed below) and introduced as early as you like. In fact, I believe the earlier they're introduced the better. Challenging bedtime behaviors (like most habits), can start early and be hard to break, so it's best to avoid introducing less-than-ideal habits such as bedtime bargaining or sweet treats in exchange for sweet dreams, while at the same time commit to the following 4 B's.
There are a couple of reasons why I often recommend that bath time comes first and serve as the official start to the bedtime routine. On the practical side, bedtime baths are conveniently both soothing and hygienic. With respect to establishing a regular routine, they also happen to serve quite well as an activity that provides an obvious stopping point for whatever children are doing beforehand, and a clear cue that bedtime is soon to follow. A bath after the last breastfeeding or bottle of the day can be particularly helpful for those infants who are becoming reliant on nursing/drinking themselves to sleep. After all, it's next to impossible to sleep through the process of being undressed and bathed. Fortunately, this is a routine that can easily be repeated on a nightly basis. While it's true that kids do not need to take baths every night, most actually enjoy them, making baths a great (albeit optional) way to start winding down for bedtime.
I am going to assume that I don't have to sell you on the importance of teaching one's child to brush their teeth at bedtime. Instead, I'll just point out that the routine of brushing is definitely one of the easiest habits to introduce early – even before teeth actually appear on the scene – since babies and toddlers love to put things in their mouths anyways. To get your children used to the concept of brushing their teeth, it can be helpful to read books about the subject with them. As for whether bathing or brushing comes first, that really doesn't matter so long as they both come after the last “meal" of the day.
As a longtime champion of the benefits of early literacy, I can think of no better sleep routine than one that involves reading books at bedtime. After all, the benefits of reading – even to very young babies – are clear. Additionally, doing so each night makes for an inexpensive, enjoyable, and easily repeated routine. As an added bonus, it's also a routine that 1) tends to naturally make children drowsy and 2) is easily taken on the road (along with the other 3 B's), which can make getting your kids to fall asleep in unfamiliar settings quite a bit easier.
The fourth and final “B" simply involves getting your children safely and comfortably tucked into bed. There are many acceptable variations, depending on your child's age, personality, and sleep needs. For children under a year, this definitely needs to include a safe crib or bassinet and involve no actual “tucking," since wearable blankets are recommended in lieu of loose ones so as to more safely keep infants covered during the night. For toddlers and older kids, other various sleep considerations apply – from timing to type of bed and mattress. Read more about the right bed for your child here.
Of course, this routine is not concrete and can be adjusted to best suit your family's particular bedtime needs and preferences. But on the whole, your overarching goal with respect to the 4 B's should remain the same: to create a quiet, safe sleep environment where you can help your child master the art and science of getting a good night's sleep!