By Centre for Community Child Health, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne
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Bedtime battles can be less of a problem when you use a positive routine in the 20 minutes before tucking young children in for the night.
Baby sleeping soundly on her back
 

A positive routine involves your child going through a few pleasurable activities in the crucial 20-minute period before bedtime. It helps soothe and calm your child to get ready for sleep.

A good bedtime routine smoothes the way for good sleeping habits. Without a good routine, it can be hard for a baby to settle to sleep.

A positive routine goes together with any efforts to improve bedtime settling difficulties in babies, toddlers and preschoolers. A positive routine is almost always recommended when other behavioural strategies are used, such as controlled comforting or camping out.

What a positive bedtime routine looks like

A routine can have any number of activities. Most routines involve a mix of pre-bed tasks (bath, brushing teeth) and quiet, enjoyable activities (reading a story). The aim is to keep the atmosphere positive, using positive attention and praise. The key is that similar activities are done in roughly the same way each night.

Here’s an example of a routine that can start after dinner and a bath:

  • breastfeed or bottle-feed (outside the bedroom)
  • quiet play for 15-20 minutes (can include reading a book together)
  • going into the bedroom
  • brief cuddle and kiss
  • into bed.
At the end of the 20-minute ‘positive period’, say goodnight. This is the time to be firm if your child resists. Be clear that it’s now time for sleep, then leave the room promptly.

Making a start: choosing the best bedtime

You might have an ideal bedtime in mind – somewhere between 7 pm and 8 pm for young children.

But when you’re dealing with settling problems, the best bedtime to start with is one closest to when your child naturally falls asleep. For example, if you find that your child finally falls asleep around 9 pm, set this as a temporary bedtime.

This increases the chance that the routine will become firmly associated with the onset of sleep.

Moving your child’s actual bedtime towards your ideal bedtime

The final step of the positive routine involves bringing your child’s bedtime forward. This begins a week after introducing the ‘positive period’ and involves making bedtime 5-10 minutes earlier every few days. You do this until you reach your child’s ideal bedtime.

For example, if your child has been falling asleep at 9 pm, but you want an 8 pm bedtime:

  1. Start by putting your child to bed at 8.50 pm.
  2. Do this for several nights.
  3. Move bedtime back to 8.40 pm for the next few nights.
  4. Continue this gradual ‘fading’ process until your child is going to bed at the right time.

How long it takes

The routine usually takes a few weeks to be effective. But how quickly the ‘positive period’ can be successfully shortened each week will have a big impact on how long it will take for this process to work.

Typically, the ‘positive period’ needs to be shortened gradually, rather than quickly.

Research has found that a positive routine not only helps with settling problems, but can also lead to general improvements in the quality of parent-child relationships.
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  • Content supplied by Centre for Community Child Health
  • Last Updated 13-10-2011
  • Last Reviewed 26-08-2011
  • Acknowledgements

    Adapted from Centre for Community Child Health (2004). The Infant Sleep Study: Managing sleep problems in babies: A training manual. Royal Children’s Hospital: Melbourne; and Centre for Community Child Health (2006). Settling and sleeping: Research based professional resource. Downloaded from www.rch.org.au/ccch/platforms.

    The Centre for Community Child Health wishes to acknowledge the Telstra Foundation for their support in developing this resource.

  • Adams, L., & Rickert, V. (1989). Reducing bedtime tantrums: Comparison between positive routines and graduated extinction. Pediatrics, 84, 756-761.

    Mindell, J.A., Telofski, L.S., Wiegand, B. & Kurtz, E.S. (2009). A Nightly Bedtime Routine: Impact on Sleep in Young Children and Maternal Mood. Sleep, 32(5), 599–606.