How do you make bedtime work — for everyone?

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Reader Meg (for those of you on Offbeat Tribe, you can find her here) shot us a question about a certain time of the night that can be quite a challenge for parents–new and experienced alike–THE BEDTIME ROUTINE.


In all seriousness, I am excited to address THE BEDTIME ROUTINE (I’ll stop doing that now) because getting Jasper to go to sleep has been an epic experience. I don’t want to call it a battle because that implies that it’s been something negative, and I wouldn’t go that far.

The Question

Specifically, Meg asked: “I was wondering if you would consider tackling one of the most (in my opinion) fraght with judgement and conflict mommy topics out there…the dreaded bedtime. As someone stuggling with the topic (and the actual deed) I would love to see this handeled in a manner outside of the catty birth board dichotamy that is all I have seen so far in my extensive searching of the interwebs.”

Anyone who has tried to get a resistant sleepy child to go to sleep knows that there’s not one cut-and-dry approach to take. There are a few dominant models for what to do once your child is asleep (i.e. CIO vs. attachment parenting), but that’s not what we’re talking about today–we’re talking about what takes place BEFORE you get into bed.

Potential Answers

In a nutshell, here’s the experience my answer is based on: we co-sleep, breastfed around-the-clock until two weeks ago (meaning Jazz nursed all night LONG), and have a child who really digs going to sleep while nursing and/or rocking. I have made up different songs to sing him to bed (it helps when your child has six names, because you can sing them all as a nursery rhyme), all of which will work, depending on his mood. Also, unlike some of you INSANELY LUCKY PARENTS with wonder-babies who fall asleep as soon as someone says car, Jasper didn’t fall asleep in any kind of vehicle until he was ten months old.

Having said that, here are some tips and tricks:

  • If you have a rocking chair, ROCK. Jasper is a rocking addict now, but the chair was the only thing (besides breastfeeding) that would work for the first ten months of his life.
  • If you sing…sing, SIIIIIIING (OMG, Travis. Sorry, guys). For real, though: songs are integral to a good night’s sleep for Jazz. We usually rotate out four or five smash hits, all of which have his name in there somewhere–he’s got six names total, so it makes for some musical sweetness.
  • Once your baby outgrows the rocking chair (J still rocks somewhat comfortably, but the day is coming), move out of it. I now spend a good deal of time vertical performing what I call the mama-rock. Basically, I hold him while standing, and bend my knees, alternating from side to side. This is exhausting, but, on the flip side, gives you killer calves and thighs if you do it regularly enough. Since we’ve stopped nursing, this is actually the only way Jasper goes to sleep during the day.
  • If your baby will respond to your partner, OMG, bring them in. Jasper would NOT let Sean put him to sleep for the longest time–something about this was mama-only-territory. Recently, I’ve started shooting more weddings late into the night, so Sean has been in charge of bedtime. Out of necessity, he has developed his own routines–we discovered that if Sean tried to do what works between Jasper and I it just pissed Jasper off. Now, they do what I call the dad-sway. It’s not always as painless (sometimes Jasper protests with tears) as the mama-rock, but it accomplishes the same means in more or less the same amount of time.
  • If all else fails, give the car a try. It didn’t work for us until the last month or so, but now we can take Jasper for a drive if he’s still up around 9:30 or 10pm, and sleep ensues.

So, Mamas! What do are your bedtime routines? What works for you?

Note from Ariel: We’re not interested in getting into the “Cry it out” debate here. We want to hear what works for YOU — not why you think what works for other people isn’t a good idea.

Comments on How do you make bedtime work — for everyone?

  1. Our bedtime routine goes like this:
    1. Bathtime! Depending on Tavi’s mood, sometimes it’s as long as 20-30 minutes
    2. Diaper, onesie, and sleepsack on!
    3. Nursing/mama-baby time in the nursery closet
    4. Time for bed! I lay Tavi down in his crib — usually drowsy, almost never completely asleep.

    We’ve been blessed by a guy who *usually* falls to sleep within 5-10 minutes of this routine.

    • Were you always able to lay him down like that? We are trying to figure out when we should start trying to transition Joaquin… right now he still wails as soon as he hits the mattress if he isn’t already asleep!

      • We started trying to lay him down in a crib (instead of in bed with us) around 3 months. There was about a week of transition, where we’d sit by the crib and pet his head and talk to him and reassure him as he fell asleep, and then he got used to it.

        I’d say we still have COMPLETE FAIL about 20% of the time, where he gets laid down and is just like OH HELL NO. But for the most part, we’ve been very very lucky with him being a pretty easy-to-sleeper.

  2. Ah, love this post but mostly because that is EXACTLY how my bub goes to sleep. Lots of rocking, lots of nursing, lots of cuddling. We have our routine though, much like Tavi’s but we are still in the co-sleeping, nursing all night long groove. He’ll start off in his crib for a spell at night and he naps in his crib all the time but nighttime is with mama, right in my armpit. 🙂 I know it doesn’t last forever so as long as I can be relatively rested, I don’t mind a bit (and I miss him when he’s in the other room!)

  3. Our bedtime routine is:

    1. Bath/lotion/jammies
    2. Turn on the sound machine
    3. Drink a warm bottle
    4. Walk in a circle around her room while she plays with my hair till her eyes start to droop (usually only like 5 minutes)
    5. Rock her in the rocking chair till she is completely out
    6. Place her in her crib and sneak out

    While this routine works like a charm, the drawback is that I have a 15 month who doesn’t sleep through the night yet and needs to do 3-6 on the above list to get back to sleep. But, that is a different topic for another day.

  4. I don’t have a little one, but a good friend of mine’s routine is (keep in mind, she now has an 18-month-old, but she’s been doing it since he was about 6 months old):

    1. Bathtime – anywhere from 5 minutes to 20 minutes, depending on everyone’s mood.

    2. Put on diaper and pajamas.

    3. Select a video or DVD (she’s pretty mainstream, so the choices are usually Cars, Toy Story, or some other Disney/Pixar flick).

    4. Give the G-Unit a bottle of milk (maybe 4 ounces or so)

    Optional: Cuddle up on the couch (he’s never been much of a cuddler – he’s happiest sprawled out on the couch AWAY from you)

    6. Ten to 15 minutes of movie.

    7. In the bed with the white noise machine on.

    The G-Unit (his name is Garrett) is usually asleep within 10 minutes after this routine.

    • Wow, my step-mom did this with my half sister and it was AWESOME until Erin was 3 years old and mom started having serious back problems.

  5. Chamomile worked awesome when Bell had colic. Not during the day so much, but a nice bath with some lavender bubbles or salt and a touch of chamomile in a bottle or syringe helped heaps. It was very hard to console her most of the time. I would put her to bed before me, then crawl in when it was safe. She’s too big now, and I miss sleeping with my baby. 🙁

  6. Our 9-month-old fights sleep every night, right up to the moment that he actually falls asleep. We’ve established a pretty successful routine, though. (We call it a “routine”; he probably thinks of it more as a “trick.”)

    1. Bath. Wolfie LOVES the water, so baths last, at least, twenty minutes. He is quite pleasant the entire time, even getting out of the bath. Watching the water drain = awesome and fascinating.

    2. New dipe & pajamas. This is where it starts to get tricky. He realizes that pajamas lead to bedtime, so distraction is the key to making it through Step #2 with few tears.

    3. Bedtime bottle and books. Wolfie takes his bottle in bed while we read and/or sing to him. If he doesn’t start to drop after four books and the usual 3-song repertoire, we tell him about our day to the minutest detail. That usually does the trick. (We have very boring workdays, according to most babies.)

    But if it doesn’t do the trick and he’s still rolling around in bed, throwing his limbs around (and that boy has a mean accidental punch-in-the-eye), we just hold him close and keep talking for as long as it takes. The whole routine, once we get him into bed, can last anywhere from ten to forty-five minutes. We’ve learned that patience is really important to everyone feeling relaxed, so we just savor it.

  7. When my almost-two-year-old was an infant, we didn’t have much of a routine. I let her set her own bedtime, according to her rhythms and it usually worked out to be about the same every night. But we always had the following when it was time to go to bed:
    1. sleep sheep on.
    2. innocence mission’s stay awake album playing over bedroom speakers.
    3. swaddled (until she was 3 months and rebelled against it)
    4. sleep positioner (until she outgrew it)

    I also put her down drowsy but awake.

    with our new 2 month old, she eats, gets swaddled and falls asleep in the swing until mama is ready to go bed, then i take her to bed with me. i do this because we all sleep in one room, and i can immediately tend to stella before her noises wake alice up.

  8. 1. Bath
    2. Massage
    3. All of us sit down (mom, dad, and two little ones) and read a book.
    4. Nursing
    5. SIT ON YOGA BALL AND BOUNCE BABY TO SLEEP. This is the big step. Joaquin doesn’t like rocking, only bouncing. He likes very soft singing or a constant “shhhh” sound.
    6. Put down in crib 3-4 times before he actually stays asleep.

    If I am having a particularly frustrating and long time getting baby to sleep, I put on a movie for me. I usually do foreign films because I can read the words if he is crying or, as we call it, “complaining”. The movie helps me focus on something other than the crying. Both of our kids have been tough to get to sleep and I totally get sleep envy when I see other mom’s kids passed out in their carseats. I wish I could remember how we transitioned to a less intensive routine with our older boy, because by the time he was 9-10 months old, we were able to lay him down after his bedtime routine without the hour of bouncing. Funny how you forget really important things like that…

  9. I cant say this enough… get on a routine and stick with it – always, always!

    Ours looks like this… bath, put on lotion/pj’s, brush teeth (now), stories, kisses and bed/lights out

    Our kids who are now 5 and 3 are so used to this routine that it takes them no time to go to sleep and we hardly ever hear complaints – its all that they really know

    I second this with naps… our 3 year old is so used to a nap schedule that even if we havent scheduled one (we are out and about or whatever), she will fall asleep wherever she is… 🙂

  10. Wondering about this. I’m childless right now, but I was a very colicky baby (screamed for 9 months straight, apparently), so my parents couldn’t ever get me into a routine. I’m now 27 and have never been able to fall asleep quickly. Takes me about an hour no matter how strict my own routine is. A routine from the beginning would probably have been good. Sorry mom and dad!!

    • Yep, same here, except our version is: Bath, Bottle, Book, Bed. (Sadly my boobs stopped producing at 5 mos).

      I’d say it works 90% of the time. We too put Raven down tired but awake, and she will cry for 1 to 3 minutes tops before she rolls over & goes to sleep.

  11. over the last two months we’ve tried everything – the swing, nursing, patting, walking, swaddling, shushing, singing, bouncing on the yoga ball, reading, sitting in her vibrating chair, nursing again, patting again, swaddling again and every conceivable combination of those. when i sought advice from the interwebs i was told, “when you see your baby getting sleepy, put her down for a nap”. put her down for a nap? what the hell does that mean?

    the realization that there are only two ingredients necessary for jude to sleep predictably has been a lifesaver – she needs to 1) suck 2) in the dark. we got a cheap pack-n-play from craigslist to go in our dungeon-like guestroom and, after spending an obscene amount of money on tiny plastic nipples, we’ve finally found a pacifier she will take.

    so, our routine for naps is:
    after about an hour of stimulating play
    1. nurse in the day bed in the guestroom until her eyes are closed and she’s breathing softly (15 minutes)
    2. lay her in the pack-n-play
    3. soothe with the pacifier if necessary

    the routine for bedtime is:
    1. wait for the sun to set
    2. nurse (she’s a “cluster eater” so before bed especially she nurses non-stop)
    3. bath or story/quiet play time (15 minutes)
    4. final nurse in rocker in our bedroom until her eyes are closed and she’s breathing softly (15-30 minutes depending on her mood)
    4. lay her in her co-sleeper
    5. soothe with pacifier if necessary

    with nap time and bedtime i usually have to return to the room 2 or 3 times over the first half hour to replace the pacifier or nurse for another few minutes to get her to go to sleep fully. she’ll nap for 1-2 hours at a time. during the night she nurses between 1 and 2 and again between 4 and 5.

  12. We’ve always done bath, jammies/teeth/lotion, books, songs and then sleep (via bf’ing and rocking). My baby girl goes to sleep no problem but won’t stay that way for more than 2 hours at a time (she’s 1 now, which makes for some long nights), and my son (3) takes forever and needs lots of help to get to sleep, but sleeps like an angel. Go figure 🙂

  13. I’m wondering when parents started a bedtime routine. I have a two month old and we are still in the “do whatever you want” phase with him.


    • We started at 6 months but honestly it didn’t really take till around 9-10 months (in terms of bedtime around the same time at night and nap times).

    • I started the routine at about 4 months, and it stuck pretty quickly — I’d say within a week or two? — but I think this is in large part because Tavi is pretty mellow and easy. I’ve had friends who weren’t able to really establish an effective routine until their son was a year.

    • We started just recently (4 mos) and I think it is already making a difference. It used to be a half hour or more of bouncing to get our baby to sleep, but now after his routine it only takes 10-15 min of bouncing him.

    • Thank you for asking that! My daughter is 6 weeks old and I usually let her nap wherever and then nurse her to sleep whenever I’m ready to go to bed (we co-sleep) but I wasn’t sure when was a good age to start trying to get into a routine

      • we started at 6 weeks. we don’t have a set time for naps either and the bedtime routine is flexible as far as when it starts – usually once it’s dark outside and she starts giving cues that she’s sleepy.

    • Like Ariel said, it depends on your child’s temperament, although I find that most kids eventually find comfort in routines. My son started putting himself on his own schedule around 2 months, and only some times do we have to “cheat” it a bit by nursing just a smidge before his bath and last bottle.

    • I have a fourth trimester deadline. For the first three months, we do whatever Stella seems to want. When 4th tri is over, I’ll start working on consistent bedtime/routine, and then when she graduates from the co-sleeper at 6 months (or whenever she starts to sit up!), I’ll start to ease the association between nursing and bedtime, so that she’ll be able to go to bed without having to nurse first. Who knows if it’ll work this time?! It worked out that way with Alice.

  14. never really had a routine set in place. but for the most part.

    for our 2yr old
    1. bath time sometime after 6
    2. play/movie
    3. read a book
    4. walk out of the room (just in the past few weeks we’ve been able to stop patting his back till he falls asleep…YEEESSS!)

    for our infant
    nurse till little man is OUT. lay him down. repeat. we co-sleep so i just roll over, pop out the boob, latch him on, then we both drift back to sleep…

  15. A friend swears by chamomile. They have dissolving tabs at health food stores and she says it helped her kid settle down for bed time. He is 4 and has apparently always been hard to get to sleep. I haven’t tried it yet… has anyone else? I am a little weary of giving anything to baby. I also heard you can drink chamomile tea before nighttime nursing and it is supposed to be calming to baby.

    • Hey! I used to drink chamomile tea sometimes before nursing at night, and Jasper would definitely be MUCH calmer. It also helped him sleep a little longer–instead of nursing every 2-3 hours, he’d sleep for a 4-6 hour stretch.

  16. We started a routine around 3 months old when she started being really difficult about bedtime. We take a bath around 6:30 until she starts yawning (usually 20 minutes or so). Then diaper, shirt, sleep sack, bottle, snuggle and jiggle until asleep. Aspen hated rocking and went on nursing strike about the same time, hence the difficult to get to bed. Breastfeeding had been the key before then.

  17. Miles has been a mellow and awesome baby, except for the sleep thing. If you put him down before he’s totally asleep, he flips his shit. Put a blanket on him? Shit flip. Look at him wrong?

    You get the idea.

    We’re still working on a good routine.

    • Aria is the same way about the blanket. In the dead of summer, I have to put winter jammies on her and turn the a/c up a little. Even the thinnest blanket makes her shoot awake for some reason.

  18. i’ve been lucky since birth, aiden sleeps amazingly our night time routine is simple. aiden hangs out in our bed till he’s sleepy then it’s a bottle with water and a blanket and he’s off to sleep

    see we used to do formula then it progressed to milk, but aiden has developed a small case of milk mouth because of it…. (also that he had 4 teeth by the end of his 3rd month alive) ANYWAY so we stay away from milk in bottles now and the only time a day he has a bottle is during nap or sleep

    he grew out of pacifiers at such a young age so we never really could use them :/ but that isn’t such a bad thing

  19. Hour long routine, starting at 6pm:
    1) Get ready for bathtime, making a big deal about getting a towel, washcloth, jammies, and the duckie bathtub ready to go.
    2) Take bath. Get clean for about a minute, play with toys for about 10 minutes.
    3) Go read stories. 3 of them. Usually at least one has some Jesus in it, but not always. Current fave is “I Love You, Stinkyface”.
    4) Get his room ready for sleepytime – turn on the nightlight, turn on the baby monitor, turn off the big light.
    5) Go out into the living room and dance to a 6 song playlist by The Divers (local folksy group). Start out fast, end slow.
    6) Bedtime bottle. That’s going to be the kicker to get rid of in a couple months.
    7) Lots of hugs and kisses from Dad, lots of hugs and kisses from Mom, tucked into bed.
    8) Sometimes lots of crying and climbing up the side of the crib. We go put him back down every few minutes, and he eventually falls asleep.

  20. This is why everyone should have at least TWO. (tongue in cheek) Because you learn that perhaps it reeeeeaallly isn’t all about you and your strategies. Mine were truly two completely different sleepers despite my elaborate plans.

    The boy falls to sleep easily, by himself, happy as a clam. And…. sadly…. he always woke up happy as a clam many many times per night as a baby. Still at 5, probably 3x per week he will call for Mama for a reassurance at night. I pat him or quick cuddle, and go back to bed.

    The girl was always harder to get to sleep – highly stimulated, sometimes crying, babbling, wanting to nurse for a long time, us with the strategies…. the patting, not patting, tip toeing, praying for silence in the house. Once she was DOWN though, it was all good. She was 6 – 8 hours per night from a few weeks. She’s still (at 9) my “hard to get to sleep sleeper” meaning she will call from the bedroom “Mom! I needa drink.” “Mom! I forgot to tell you what happened today at school!” “Mom, I forgot to read you my poem!” “Mom!! You won’t believe how RUDE Ezra was today!” Blah blah blah literally until drop-dead-threatening-consequence-time. But when she’s down? She is freaking OUT. I mean OUT for 12 hours, and elephants could stampede through.

    My biggest learning about sleep: a huge part of it is developmental, and a huge part is temperamental. I wish I’d known that when I was endlessly searching for a way I could influence the process.

    My only other religion about sleep is stick to good habits – stick to a routine. Bedtime is bedtime – – I don’t set my kids up for failure by dragging them all over and keeping them up. EIGHT IS BEDTIME, mama needs her sanity. This also helps when they are older. My personal belief is that about 80% of bad behavior in children is poor sleep, poor nutrition so I try to avoid it.

    • “and a huge part is temperamental.” AMEN! I try to always qualify my talk about sleep with a post-script “…but Tavi’s pretty easy.” The sleep strategies I respect the most are the ones that acknowledge every child is different and what works for one child at one time, may not work for a different child — or even that same child at a different time! 🙂 I think a lot of raging sleep debates could be avoided if more people understood that.

  21. Liam started sleeping through the night at 2 or 3 months, but we’ve tried to get him on the same routine since he was 3 weeks old, more for our sakes than his. Sometimes we will play a bit in the evening, or if he is really tired, we will let him nap lightly on us. Then he gets his bath, and gets to play for about 15 minutes or so. Then afterwards is tummy time to dry off his bum. Then his bottle. We used to have to watch really calm tv during this bottle (our favorite was Survivor Man or Nova documentaries), but now we can watch whatever. Then we put him to bed with his sound machine, and swaddle the heck out of him. Then we just leave him alone. It did take a few weeks of rocking and cuddling and singing and really just hanging out next to the crib for an hour before he got to where he would put himself to sleep. Sometimes he falls asleep in about 5 minutes, sometimes it takes almost an hour of him burbling to himself. Oh, and his thumb. His tasty, tasty thumb.

  22. We started a routine-ish around 2 months. Lorelei is pretty great about going to sleep on her own. I think that’s largely thanks to starting a routine early. It’s not so much a time we’re locked into. We try to watch when she seems to start getting tired, then she gets a bath using Johnson’s bedtime wash with chamomile and lavender. Then she gets lotioned up with the same scented lotion and we put her in her pj’s. She hates blankets on her legs so if it’s hot, it’s legless onesies, cold it’s a footed jammie (funny enough, if she’s in footed jammies, she doesn’t mind a blanket). Then, while carrying her from the changer to the co-sleeper I sing her bedtime song. Usually, laying her down, pacifier, finishing the song and maybe a minute or two of belly rubs and nuzzles are all we need to do. She’ll be awake and we close the bedroom door and she usually falls asleep within a few minutes.

    Sometimes she’ll wake up if she pops the pacifier out too soon in sleep. Then it’s a quick step in our room to put it back in and she’s good.

    If she still seems wide awake I tend to sing a second song, maybe nurse her and I try to read a book… not a kid’s book, my book out loud in a soothing whisper-voice.

    She’s usually asleep by 8:30-9 pm and I find we all prefer it when she goes to sleep later because she wakes later (around 7:30 am which gives me time to get ready for work and a little time with her before leaving). It gives us all more quality time together in the evening as well.

    I actually discovered a new technique today at the Aquarium when she was tired but seeming to resist a nap that if I lay her down in my lap and put a blanket over her the way I do when nursing in public then she’ll calm down quickly and fall asleep. I don’t have to actually nurse her it’s more to use the blanket to fool her into “night” mode. It worked this evening as well when I realized that the sun setting later in summer keeps our room from getting really dark at her bedtime.

    If it’s naptime during the day, so far, just putting her in her crib with the lights off and turning on her Winnie the Pooh mobile usually does the trick… if she’s even home, we don’t spend much time in the house during the day.

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