Mother nursing her toddler in a rocker
Parenting

Gentle Parenting and the Bedtime Routine

This is the first week in a 3-week series on parenting observations. Week one is based on gentle parenting, week two is about parenting with compassion, and week three is about parenting with a disability.

These posts are based on my personal experiences as a parent and are not meant in any way to judge other parenting styles or decisions. I am offering my personal research and conclusions as possible suggestions for others out there, therefore these posts will be as objective as possible. When it comes to parenting: provided the method isn’t abusive, there really isn’t a wrong way to parent your child. Be secure and do what works best for you and your family and ignore outside judgement.


A few days ago, I was in a text conversation with some other mothers about bedtime. What was bedtime like? How young is too young to start a routine? Why should I start a routine?

Scrolling through the conversation, there were a lot of great tips and insights shared surrounding the nature of each child’s bedtime routine and when they started having one. A common thread in the discussion: the adaptability and consistency to each routine made for an easier transition from waking to sleep.

As I was explaining Jai’s routine, I realized how important it was to his overall happiness and demeanor. I don’t pay attention to my own bedtime routine or even give myself a quality one to begin with, but Ash and I make sure that we are consistent with Jai to help him fall asleep with minimal fuss. When Jai wakes up in the morning he is chipper, refreshed, and ready to start the day.

By incorporating some gentle parenting techniques, it will create a calm atmosphere filled with mutual respect and listening by both parent and child to minimize stress and frustration by both parties.

This isn’t meant as the correct way of doing things, but merely information I’ve compiled from my own research and experience. It will hopefully provide some suggestions or ideas to build off for your own parenting experiences.

If you are dropping into this post from elsewhere, click here for more information about gentle parenting.

Creating a Consistent Bedtime Routine

There are two important aspects to the bedtime routine: the time in which the child goes to bed and the process that gets them there. Unfortunately, life gets busy and maintaining a consistent bedtime isn’t always realistic. You get home late from work, there’s a late dinner date with some friends, or time just slips by: all of these are reasons why it can be hard to maintain a consistent bedtime.

There is a lot of back and forth out there about whether there should be a consistent bedtime, and like with everything else, only you know when it is best to put your little one to bed.

There are ways to maintain a consistent routine despite changing bedtimes from day-to-day. Make sure that you have a routine that is the same every night no matter what time you start the process. What will help is if you have two similar routines that differ in length depending on how much time you can take putting the little one to bed. Jump down to “Our Personal Routine” for more information.

What does bedtime have to do with gentle parenting?

How you create that routine and what is involved in the process is key and it will be individualized for your own child. Gentle parenting is about creating a partnership with your child and respecting their individuality as they develop. It is about recognizing their bedtime needs at this developmental moment and accommodating those as much as possible.

Bedtime is one of the major battlegrounds in childhood development between child and caretaker; the child wants to have control over what they are doing once they are more aware of time and their developing autonomy. It will be key for the parent regardless of the child’s age to keep some of the tenets of gentle parenting in mind: you are the parent and therefore you must remain calm and in control with an irrational(and possibly overtired) child who will do anything to stay up.

By maintaining a calm and respectful atmosphere with your little one, you will begin the process of creating some healthy habits for your relationship. Unfortunately, this will take a lot of time and patience on your part as the parent. It may take a few weeks before you see any real success and there will always be bad days after the routine is established. The hope is to minimize those bad days for both of you and remove the battle that is bedtime.

The Science of a Calming Routine

When you create a routine, it becomes a comfortable habit for your child. You want them to associate this routine for calming down and beginning the process of going to bed. The key is consistency, so your child knows what to expect each step of the way. Children, particularly pre-verbal ones, are completely unaware to the passage of time and this routine will help them know what is expected of them and how to handle that expectation.

There are four easy things to remember to a calming bedtime and they are based on most of the senses: sights, sounds, touch, and smells.

  • Sight: Reading a set number of books (even to a newborn) will give them something to look at and focus on as you go through your process.
    • Create a relaxing atmosphere by having a calming night light with soothing colors (blue tends to be calming). Lights that have motion will help make them drowsy as they focus on the motion.
  • Sounds: Have a white noise machine or use your smart speaker to create a white noise playlist for the night. If you prefer to provide music, calming classical or spa music works well. You want to make sure that it is relaxing and soothing in nature.
    • When you are starting the process to get them to bed, make sure to switch voices and intonations to be quieter and calmer. Minimize yelling or sharp sounds in your own voice. Try and make them aware when they start to get loud and have them start to speak in quieter tones too.
  • Touch: When it comes to bath time, use warm water to help relax your child. A soothing bath soap that has oatmeal to make the water softer will contribute to a pleasant bath time.
    • Using age appropriate pajamas, have microfleece (that is fire safe) or some other soft fabric that will be pleasant for the little one to touch. If they are old enough, give them a lovie or something soft that they can play with to help soothe any possible stress of the going to bed.
  • Smells: there are a lot of calming formulas out there for your bath soap/bubble bath and massage lotion meant for sensitive little ones. If your little one is particularly sensitive and needs a specific type of soap or lotion, consider putting a lavender-based scented product in the child’s room near their bed.

By incorporating all these senses into your routine, it will help contribute to a calming atmosphere. Above are suggestions, you may have a better idea of how you want to develop your own bedtime routine.

Allowing for Autonomy (Even at Bedtime)

Grant your little one the opportunity to choose parts of their bedtime that is within your realm to give, and give them a sense of control over a situation that is very much out of their control.

There are several different points that allow for natural choice for your child. Each of these points may be something that has to happen, but you can allow them to decide how it happens:

  • Length of their bath time
  • What they play with in the bath
  • What pajamas they wear (provide them with two options to choose from to help limit delay)
  • What songs you sing to/with them (provide a limit to how many: “you get 3 songs to choose from, which 3 would that be?”)
  • What books you read to/with them (provide a limit to how many: “you get 3 books to choose from, which 3 would that be?”)

Another possibility is that your child may opt to not do part of the routine. For example: if they aren’t in need of a bath, they may decide to skip it for the night. Let them, though you may need to say that they will have to get one tomorrow. The best thing you could do is be flexible in the routine when you can, provided it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the routine.

It is a classic case of choosing your battles and if you can compromise at a particular point, it makes the non-negotiables easier to handle for your little one.

Our Personal Bedtime Routine

We have a “normal” one when we aren’t pressed for time and a short one if we know he needs to be put to bed in short order. Each routine focuses on providing a calm atmosphere for him and maintains a flexibility in case he decides something needs to change in the moment.

Normal routine (40-60 minutes):

  • Begin the routine by setting a timer for final 10 minutes of regular play. Once the timer goes off we tell him it’s time to start getting ready for bed.
  • Draw a warm bath with calming bubbles and favorite toys. We allow him to decide how long the bath will be. It can be between 10-20 minutes depending on his mood.
  • Give him a full body massage with a calming lavender scented lotion. We turn on a smart speaker with a white noise playlist: streams, rain, ocean waves, etc.
  • Put him in his pajamas and sing the alphabet song to him. We shut off the overhead light but leave his bathroom light on which provides just enough light to read to him.
  • Provide one final nurse and allow him to choose 4 different books to read.
  • Brush his teeth and recite a “going to bed” book we’ve memorized as we put him in his crib. We have a light machine that mimics ocean waves that we turn on and a humidifier that provides a nightlight for the entire night. At this point we shut the bathroom light off. He will sit down in his crib once we shut the light off and wave “bye-bye.”
  • We leave his room at this point. He sometimes expresses frustration that we left him alone with a short cry (no longer than 30 seconds) and then he will chat himself to sleep.

Shortened routine (20 – 30 minutes):

  • Begin the routine by setting a timer for final 5 minutes of play. Once the timer goes off we tell him it’s time to start getting ready for bed.
  • Give him a full body massage with a calming lavender scented lotion. We turn on a smart speaker with a white noise playlist: streams, rain, ocean waves, etc.
  • Put him in his pajamas and sing the alphabet song to him. We shut off the overhead light but leave his bathroom light on which provides just enough light to read to him.
  • Provide one final nurse and allow him to choose 2 different books to read.
  • Brush his teeth and recite a “going to bed” book we’ve memorized as we put him in his crib. We have a light machine that mimics ocean waves that we turn on and a humidifier that provides a nightlight for the entire night. At this point we shut the bathroom light off. He will sit down in his crib once we shut the light off and wave “bye-bye.”
  • We leave his room at this point. He sometimes expresses frustration that we left him alone with a short cry (no longer than 30 seconds) and then he will chat himself to sleep.

Making a Routine your Own

The major thing to keep in mind is to not rush the routine. Even if you are pressed for time and doing your shortened version, make sure not to rush your little one. They pick up on any anxiety you might be feeling and that can amp up their own anxiety. Try to factor time in as much as possible so there isn’t a feeling of being rushed.

This is not realistic all the time, but if you can minimize rushing your routines, it will help minimize conflict.

The routine you establish will have to be your own – only you know their needs best and that’s who you need to consider above anything else.

When we started our routine, we didn’t do everything listed above: we would read from a longer book until he fell asleep nursing and gently put him into the crib. As he got older, he wouldn’t fall asleep while nursing, so we adjusted by putting him into the crib while he was awake. We are currently doing what I’ve listed above and that will change as he gets older.

Figure out what is most important to you at bedtime: it might be reading, bath, or just some calming playtime before shutting the light off. Try out a few different versions until you find the one that leaves both you and your child stress-free.

The Takeaway

It is never too late to establish a calming bedtime routine, though my personal recommendation is to begin the nighttime routine as soon as possible. While the routine for an 8-week old will be different from an 8-month-old will be different from an 18-month-old, it is about evolving that routine and keeping some similarities across the board: a favorite ending book or story, a favorite song, or something else that is important to you to have in the routine from the beginning.

By keeping the routine consistent it will help you have an easier time with your little one and getting them to bed whether its 6pm or 10pm.

Like I’ve said previously in this post- it won’t be perfect one hundred percent of the time, but this might help you get some control over bedtime and help make the whole process smoother with minimal fuss.

What is your bedtime routine? What tricks worked best for you? Please sure your tips in the comments below.

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