Most families juggle such busy schedules, it can feel like everyone is constantly on-the-go. That’s why it’s so important to give everyone the chance to slow down before bedtime.
When you start your child’s bedtime ritual early in the evening, the whole family can relax, wind down, and enjoy some shared quiet time.
To set the scene, turn the TV off early in the evening, dim the lights, move more slowly and talk softly. Gradually, your child will pick up on these little cues as signs that bedtime is approaching.
Do your best to avoid high energy activities like exercising or playing computer games too close to bedtime. Instead, keep the focus on soothing, sleep-promoting activities.
A bedtime ritual might include a relaxing bath, putting on comfy pajamas, brushing teeth, story time in bed, then finishing up with goodnight kisses. Older children and teens can wind down by reading a book or listening to relaxing music.
Make sure your low-key bedtime routine follows the same order every night and starts about the same time. A predictable routine is calming, and will help prepare everyone for a better sleep.
The longer you keep up a regular schedule, the easier it will be to maintain, so keep it consistent.
Keep your environment calm and screen-free before bedtime
1. Manage screen time at bedtime
Using electronic screens at night can disrupt a child’s ability (as well as adults!) to fall asleep, leaving them feeling wired and tired the next day. Here are some strategies that can help:
- Power down devices. Put away or turn off any screens at least one to two hours before bedtime, including computer, phone, television, video games, iPads, etc. At night, the brain naturally produces melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep. The glow from electronic screens can confuse the brain and stop that process - the blue light actually tricks the body into thinking it’s daytime. Children and youth using these devices at night get so much stimulation, their minds keep turning, preventing them from feeling tired. Many adults struggle with this too! Powering down devices early in the evening will help your child wind down and enjoy a better sleep.
- Set a household bedtime for electronics. Break the family habit of using digital technology too close to bedtime by agreeing to a no screen time rule around two hours before bed. This may go smoother if all family members give up their devices coinciding with the earliest bedtime in the home. That way, the child no longer views powering down as a punishment or feel like they’re missing out on something.
- Plan device time for earlier in the day. Make it a habit to watch TV before dinner instead of later in the evening. If you do turn on the TV after dinner, make sure it’s at least one to two hours before bedtime. The idea is to create a family rule about how late TV can be watched. Some families find it helpful to set a timer so that younger children can learn to regulate the amount of TV they can watch. Consider having weekend movie nights to give the whole family a shared experience to look forward to.
- Set rules around electronic use in the bedroom. It’s okay to set limits! Have a common area where everyone’s phones can be plugged in at night, away from the bedroom. Or set a time when teens have to hand over their phones so late night texting isn’t an issue. It can help to print these rules and post for everyone in the family to see.
- Lower the brightness on phones and computer screens at night. If spending some time on phones before bed, turn the screen brightness down first. You can download an app that filters out the blue light by searching for “blue light filter” or “screen dimmer” in your favourite app store. Also, turn on the “do not disturb” function to limit interruptions.
See our Keeping Tech in Check section for more tips on healthy technology use in your family.
2. Keep caffeine away
Avoid caffeine at least 4-6 hours before bed. Soda, energy drinks, and coffee beverages can all keep children and youth from falling or staying asleep, even when they drink it hours before bedtime. Watch out for chocolate before bed as well, as it also has caffeine. Other substances can interfere with sleep cycles, including alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis.
3. Make sure your child gets daily exercise
Children who are active during the day fall asleep faster at night, sleep better, and stay asleep longer. Even small amounts of regular exercise can help your child enjoy a better night’s sleep! They can take the dog for a walk, play a sport, or go for a stroll in the park – anything that gets the blood pumping and muscles moving. Just avoid strenuous exercise too close to bedtime, so their bodies have enough time to relax.
4. If hungry, give your child a healthy bedtime snack
When a child goes to bed hungry, a rumbling tummy can keep them awake. A light, healthy snack before bed can do the trick. Try a warm glass of milk, or whole-grain crackers with peanut butter. Check out these healthy snack ideas. Too heavy a meal close to bedtime can interfere with sleep, and avoid drinking too much before bed or overnight, as they make wake up needing to go to the toilet.
Tips for building a bedtime routine
Children love to have a say in their bedtime routines, so have it become a shared activity. They’ll take pride in knowing what they are supposed to do – and over time, learn to do it by themselves.
Here are some tips to guide you:
1. Keep it short and sweet
Keep bedtime routines to no longer than 30 minutes for younger children. If a child’s routine stretches out too long, the process can excite and animate them again, so they refuse to go to bed.
2. Enjoy calming, quiet activities to prepare children and youth for bedtime
- Have your child take a bath or shower. Raising body temperature can bring on sleepiness.
- Read a bedtime story together. For older children, make sure they’re reading from a printed book rather than on a screen, like an iPad.
- Try having your child colour, or do a puzzle before bed.
- Put on relaxing music, such as soothing nature sounds.
- Give your child a back rub, foot massage, or do some light stretching to relax them and prepare them for sleep.
Keep in mind that while some children may find an activity relaxing, others may actually find it stimulating. Experiment to see which activity and timing works best for your child. For example, if bathing stimulates your child instead of making them sleepier, just move the activity to earlier in the evening.
3. Make sure your bedtime ritual follows a regular order
Keep your child’s sleep routine consistent so it becomes a healthy habit. Children are less likely to fight bedtime when they know “bath time” and “story reading time” come before bed – they may even look forward to it. Eventually, the ritual will signal to their body and brain that it’s time for sleeping. It’s okay to allow your child some flexibility with calming bedtime activities, but make sure to stick to them.
4. Keep your ritual moving in the direction of the bedroom
After bathing and teeth brushing, keep moving in the direction of the bedroom where it’s quiet and calm, so that climbing into bed becomes the last part of a soothing routine.
5. Try mindfulness or relaxation exercises to ease into bedtime
Children and youth may not realize how much stress they store in their bodies. Stress and anxiety can build up a lot of tension in their muscles making it difficult to fall asleep.
Sharing a few relaxation exercises or mindfulness activities with your child can help.
6. Tidy-up and get ready for the next day
A quick room tidy-up can be a great part of a calming bedtime routine for school-aged children. Cleaning up clutter is also a great stress-buster for the whole family. Children can put books back on a shelf, or tuck their toys away for the next day. If your child has a busy morning routine, have them use their nightly wind-down time to get a jump on the next day, by laying out clothes, making lunch, or packing their school bag.
7. Give your child a countdown before you start the bedtime routine
Some children may benefit from even more structured bedtime routines. For example, a clear bedtime countdown can help them get emotionally ready for sleep – so you can alert them when it’s 10 minutes until bedtime, then 5 minutes, etc. Try using a timer to do the counting down for you.
8. Give your routine a definite end
It’s crucial that you end your routine the same way each night – otherwise, it may feel like it lasts all night! How many times have you been asked to read another story? For younger children, you can try repeating a certain phrase, singing a special song, or turning on a nightlight to indicate that you’ve reached the end of the ritual. Make sure to leave the room afterward so they understand it’s time to settle in and fall asleep.
9. Establish family sleep rules together
It can be helpful to write down your family’s bedtime rules so that everyone is on board and plays a part in the process. It also helps baby sitters or older children understand the rules when you’re away.
10. Create a visual bedtime routine chart
Some children love having a visual, step-by-step bedtime schedule to follow. A colourful, easy-to-follow chart, might include photos, drawings, or objects, along with a “to-do-list” that reminds them of each step (e.g. have a snack, have a bath, brush teeth, read a story).
Have your child check off the activities as you complete them so they feel a sense of accomplishment by the end. It’s also a great reminder that the bedtime ritual follows the same order each night.