Five steps to good sleep hygiene

Petro Thamm, MD of Good Night Child Sleep Consultancy

Since we are celebrating the wonder of sleep today internationally, we thought we’d share some tips to help your baby sleep better.

One of the first pieces of advice that anyone would give you to establish good sleep hygiene for your little baby, is to implement a good bedtime routine. But what does a good bedtime routine involve? Here are five steps to set you off to a great sleep start!

1. Create a spa-like environment – focus on all the senses

A bedtime routine with predictable soothing sensory experiences is one of the best ways to encourage your little one to settle to sleep without a fight. Think about what your baby feels, see, smells, etc. The best analogy for this is, for example, to create a spa-like environment for your baby, where all the sensory input is conducive to sleep.

The sensory triggers also provide helpful queues for your baby to know when it is night time and time for sleep. Keep the sounds calming (white noise, classical music, lullabies), the touch soothing (massage, deep pressure, consistent temperatures), the smells delicious (lavender), the light comforting (no bright lights, candlelight). It is self-explanatory that television should not be part of bedtime routine. It is much too stimulating not even to mention the blue light that suppresses melatonin production and will effectively influence the quality of sleep.

2. Make it predictable and consistent

Children love predictability – especially toddlers. It makes them feel as if they have control of the situation and this makes them feel safe. The consistent nature of a bedtime routine is also part of the very important queues that will help your baby understand which step is “sleep”. One of most core things about a bedtime routine should be that it is always the same, so your baby knows what is coming next.

If you take your baby to the bath to open the faucet, always include them in it. If you first massage and then read a book, you should always do this. If your child is 18 months and older, it is nice to a visual display of the bedtime routine up against their wall, which you can refer to all the time. Take pictures of them in every step – the last step being them sleeping. This makes them feel very secure.

3. Feeding should be in the correct order

Try to not automatically feed your baby as the last step in the routine. Although you do want to put your baby down with a nice full stomach, you don’t want your child to always associate feeding with sleep, as this will cause unnecessary night waking.

 Try and include another step in your bedtime routine after the last feed, such as reading a book. The visual stimulation is excellent for development and they love hearing the calming sound of your voice. If you have a smaller baby or a newborn, feed half of the feed prior to the bath so that your baby can actually enjoy it instead of getting too hungry or wanting that milk too much!

4. Not too long, not too short

A bedtime routine should be more or less 30 minutes (which includes bathing time) for the best onset of melatonin – the hormone that makes us sleepy. If you stretch out the routine too much, mom, dad and baby will be overtired by the time it is done. Also, time your bedtime routine so that your child is not already sleepy when you start it.

If your baby’s optimum awake time is two hours, for example, you should start your routine at the 1.5-hour mark to make sure that they still have the capacity for the stimulation and energy it requires. The last thing you want is a baby crying the whole way through!

5. Bedtime is a time for bonding

Bedtime should be a wonderful, bonding experience. Try to have the dinner ready so that you are not stressed during the process. Be present in mind body and spirit and enjoy these last cuddles of the day with your little one. Children pick up on our emotions – if you are tired, grumpy and “just want to get it over with” don’t be surprised if your baby reacts the same way. This is especially true with toddlers, who will particularly crave attention during this time if they were are school the whole day.

It is also advisable that dads and other caretakers are involved in the bedtime routine – one parent should not always handle bedtime because your little one might start associating sleep with only that one caretaker. However, if both parents are involved your child learns that the same consistent bedtime rules apply no matter who does the routine – this makes life much easier for potential future babysitters.