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Replace the Bedtime Routine with a Bedtime Ritual

Dr. Harvey Karp explains how rituals help young kids who are resistant to sleep anticipate and prepare themselves for bedtime.

No one would refute the claim that routines are comforting for children. Scientific and anecdotal evidence bare that out. Routines allow kids to make sense of their day and provide them with the opportunity to development and implement relevant skills on the path to autonomy. Parents establish routines to this end. Specifically, parents establish sleep routines in an effort to smooth the path to dreamland. This works. But it’s possible to do more. Parents who go a step further and establish and interactive, personal bedtime ritual put kids at ease and are more likely to, therefore, get some sleep themselves. 

(A note up top: Good sleep habits start with good daytime habits. When children exercise, avoid stimulants, and enjoy fresh air, they sleep better. No amount of bedtime strategy can make up for any of that.)

Routines are rote and clock based. Rituals, however, are less about when the activities happen and more about what activities happen. They create a sense of entering into a special space or time. Creating a sleep ritual requires a two-pronged approach: Ready the child’s environment for sleep then ready the child. 

Environmental rituals generally change the ambience of the home to give the child conscious or unconscious cues that sleep time is coming. It could be turning the lights down at least an hour before bedtime, and turning off screens. The blue light from electronic devices inhibits melatonin production, making it harder for kids to fall asleep, and television or games are much too stimulating anyway. Orange light – such as that from a fireplace or even an electric candle – promotes melatonin release.

White noise can also help a kid fall asleep (and stay asleep) – starting the machine or app about an hour before bedtime is another cue for kids that bedtime is imminent. Fans are a popular white noise option, but they have their drawbacks. It has a cord to be tripped over, invites mischief and is not really the right kind of white noise – it’s just a little too high-pitched.

“The more high-pitched the sounds are, the more grating and irritating they are for kids, which can interfere with sleep. So you want something that’s lower pitched and rumbly,” says Harvey Karp, M.D., pediatrican and author of the books and DVDs Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block and creator of the new Snoo Smart Sleeper. “And then you use it all night long. It helps kids not pay attention to outside things, like noises, trucks going by, or airplanes, or inside things, like a little bit of teething, a little bit of hunger, a little stuffy nose. So it works to help them sleep through mild disturbances.”

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Child-centered rituals help children prepare for bedtime emotionally. Any number of calming rituals are possible, but it’s important for parents to find one that really works for their kids. Dr. Karp suggests a technique called magic breathing, three or four deep breaths to help kids relax.

“Magic breathing is where the kids take deep breaths, and you just conduct them like you’re the orchestra conductor, and you get them to take three or four deep breaths, just as part of the bedtime routine,” explains Karp. “The keys to successful magic breathing are two things: one is to relax your face. You want your face to be kind of rubbery, sort of like a wet washcloth. And the second thing is you want to breathe out longer than you breathe in. So when you conduct the breathing, you breathe in, and then are you conducting this very slow breathing out. It’s this slow breathing out that conveys the sense of relaxation.”

Some families even use gentle massage, although parents need to remember that whatever the calming ritual is, it needs to actually help the kid relax. A kid who isn’t particularly touchy-feely or doesn’t like massage isn’t going to respond well, nor is a particularly ticklish child. And that’s okay.

“It’s just balancing what makes kids calmer vs. what makes kids feel like play,” says Karp. “You kind of engage them more and that’s where you find the balance, and every kid is different for that.”

Bedtime sweet talk, or spending time to cuddle and review the highlights and successes of the day, can help a child relax. Marking each success during the day, perhaps by a little checkmark on the hand, allows parent and child to count the check marks and recall their specific circumstances. It’s a memory-building exercise, a self-esteem booster, and emotional nourishment as well as a relaxation ritual. Kids finish the day feeling good, feeling proud, feeling confident, and looking forward to tomorrow. It’s a ritual that sustains them past bedtime and frames the day with love.