Nighttime Rituals for Bonding and Sleep (And How to Help Your Baby…Sleep like a Baby)
1. Why a good ritual is no sacrifice
At first, a "nighttime ritual" might sound like something that involves a dance around a campfire. But all that is meant is that your infant or toddler needs a predictable, comforting, and relaxing routine that helps the child power down into sleep mode. "Kids love routines," states world renowned pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, Dr. Harvey Karp. "They know what's expected of them, and they know exactly what their job is. For both infants and toddlers, it's like a little island of predictability in a sea of strangeness." This predictability isn't just important for you and your child to feel good. There are serious health risks involved in failing to set up an effective nighttime ritual. "A lot of children are misdiagnosed with ADD and ADHD when they're really just suffering from lack of sleep, explains Pediatric Sleep Consultant Irene Gouge. "Plus, kids who are autistic or need more help regulating themselves must get more sleep." And of course, sleep is important for physical, emotional, and mental health -- both yours and the child's!
2. What not to do
Before we get to the elements of an effective bedtime ritual, let's take a look at a common mistake many parents make: soothing children to sleep with activities that won't last the night. For example, rocking your baby might put her right to sleep, but if that's what she's been groomed to need to fall asleep, you'll be running into the room every time she wakes up. As Dr. Karp puts it, "You have to pick things that satisfy your child's needs without undermining your needs." There are plenty of great ways to bond during bedtime that won't end up keeping you awake all night. So, avoid doing anything to soothe a child that requires too much vigilance, such as using a rocker that periodically needs be re-started, or letting the baby fall asleep on top of you.
3. Starting a routine
Although your actual bedtime routine will begin in the early evening, in truth you prepare a child for a good night's sleep from the moment she wakes up. Children need stimulating days to have restful nights. For an infant this can be tummy time, and for a toddler it can be any type of safe play. And just as important, you must make sure that your child spends her day feeling loved and respected. "When you're raising your kids with the feelings of being respected and having power in the world, they'll naturally want to be more cooperative with you," Dr. Karp explains. And at bedtime, it can't be stressed enough how important it is that you follow the exact same routine every night. As Betsy Brown Braun, author of You're Not the Boss of Mereminds us, "Nighttime is a separation for children, because it can be a separation of care." For children to fall sleep, they need to feel the safety of both the routine and the parent's connection.
4. 30 minutes before bedtime
Now it's time to start your routine. 30 minutes before bed, do the following:
1) Dim the lights: This will work on the body's natural melatonin cycle and send signals to the baby's brain that it's bedtime.
2) No more roughhousing, or other stimulating activities: This might seem obvious, but even fun things like toothbrush songs might be too stimulating for some children before bed. Focus on quiet, calming movements and activities.
3) Bath time: Nothing relaxes a baby after a long day of crawling and spitting up like a nice, warm bath. It's also a wonderful bonding activity!
4) Swaddle: Wrapping your baby comfortably and snuggly in a blanket makes your child feel warm and secure, and as we've mentioned repeatedly, feeling safe is a huge reason your child needs a ritual.
5) White noise: One of the most underutilized yet most valuable tools in the nighttime ritual tool belt is the use of white noise to soothe a child to sleep. Dr. Karp explains that, "White noise is huge -- it gets their brain ready to give in to sleep." However, he cautions strongly to make sure you have the right kind of white noise, as low pitched sounds are naturally more soothing. High pitched sounds (like a baby's cry) are the opposite of soothing, as many parents know all too well.
6) Songs, kisses, and books: Once your baby has been settled, and is comfy and clean, it is then time to read to your child, sing her a relaxing song (save the Metallica for the daytime), or even play Peek-a-boo if it doesn't seem to be too stimulating. This is also an important time to show physical affection, with hugs and Eskimo kisses.
5. Bedtime! The moment of truth
It is now time to place the baby in her crib. The most important part of this step is that if your baby falls asleep in your arms, you must wake her up as you set her in the bed. This allows the baby to take 10 seconds to learn to put herself to sleep. It sounds daring, I know. But this is crucial to teaching your child to soothe herself should she (and she will!) wake up periodically throughout the night. Or if waking a sleeping baby sounds too daunting, another good rule of thumb is to always put your baby to bed drowsy but awake.
6. Now, tiptoe out of the room, and run for your life!
With a bit of diligence, you'll create the perfect nighttime routine for you and your baby. Please keep in mind that every routine should be personalized. Some kids actually don't like being swaddled. Others must hear their favorite story every night. Also, for parents who must work late, do not push your baby's bedtime back in order to spend more time with her. As tempting as that can be, even the little bit of time you spend bonding with her in the evening will be sufficient provided she's cared for in a loving way throughout the day. There is no better way to be there for your child than by giving her the loving comfort of a good nighttime ritual.
Jeremy Greenberg is stand-up comedian, joke writer, blogger, and the author of 5 hilarious books. Learn more at www.jeremygreenberg.com.