Bedtime Routines for Children: Building Habits for Growing Brains and Bodies


Written by Dr. Michael Breus

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A bedtime routine for children is a series of activities that can help children relax and get ready to go to sleep. These routines can benefit children of all ages, from babies to adolescents, as well as their parents and caregivers.

While preparing children for bed can be challenging at times, parents can follow several approaches to crafting an ideal bedtime routine for their children.

Why Are Bedtime Routines Important for Children?

Sleep is important to a child’s development, including how they learn, grow, and behave. When children get the recommended amount of sleep each night, they may perform better at school and experience fewer behavior problems. Fortunately, setting a consistent bedtime routine can help children get restful nightly sleep.

Short-term benefits of bedtime routines include helping a child fall asleep faster, sleep longer at night, and have fewer awakenings. Time spent bonding before bed can also allow parents to demonstrate affection, which may contribute to a child’s regulation of their mood and behavior.

Creating and sticking to a bedtime routine early in life can help facilitate these positive effects while supporting a child’s growth and development.

Building a Child's Bedtime Routine

To build a bedtime routine for children, think about a combination of a few different activities that set them up for a good night’s sleep. In general, the routine should include three or four activities totaling about 20 to 45 minutes, but the exact activities and sequence can be adapted to a child’s age and what works best for them. 

Getting Ready for Bed

Certain activities in a bedtime routine are practical tasks that can be part of preparing for sleep, such as: 

  • Brushing teeth
  • Taking a bath
  • Putting on pajamas
  • Picking out clothes for the next day

Time for Relaxation

A bedtime routine should involve one or more activities that can help a child wind down and settle into sleep. Often, these are also times when parents can bond with their child. Examples of these activities include: 

  • Reading bedtime stories
  • Snuggling
  • Reviewing the day’s events
  • Singing a lullaby
  • Talking about things that a child enjoys or appreciates

As it gets closer to bedtime, it may be helpful to provide a warning to children that it is almost time to go to sleep. 

Saying Goodnight

Parents can put their child into bed once they are sleepy but not yet asleep. This can help a child get used to falling asleep in their crib or bed without a caregiver present. 

After a child is settled in bed, parents can ask if they need a drink of water or other basic requests. Then it’s time to say goodnight, turn out the lights, close the door, and let them fall asleep on their own.

Keeping It Consistent

The goal for parents should be to do pre-bed activities each night in the same order and for the same amount of time. Sticking to a steady routine allows a child to relax and anticipate the arrival of bedtime. 

Adjusting to Change

In practice, it can be extremely difficult to keep routines perfectly consistent. Bedtime routines can be disrupted by many things including work or social obligations, moving to a new home, or the birth of a new child. In these cases, parents can do their best to adjust and get their child back on a regular routine as soon as they can.

It takes children a little longer to adjust to any time shift. So before a trip or a change to their schedule, try gradually adjusting their sleep-wake times to help their bodies better prepare.
Dr. Michael Breus

Enhancing Sleep Habits

A bedtime routine is an important part of a child’s sleep hygiene, which includes various habits that promote restful sleep. Examples of other aspects of a child’s sleep hygiene include:

  • Having a set bedtime
  • Getting plenty of daytime activity, including time outdoors if possible
  • Staying away from products with caffeine
  • Avoiding heavy meals in the two hours before bedtime

Creating a Sleep-Friendly Bedroom

A cozy bedroom can support better sleep and work in conjunction with a thoughtful bedtime routine. An ideal sleep environment for children should be dark, quiet, and set to a comfortable temperature.

What to Leave Out of a Bedtime Routine

Part of designing a bedtime routine is knowing what to exclude. The routine should be relaxing and not overstimulating, which means that it should not include activities like watching TV, playing video games, or using electronic devices. Screen time not only risks overstimulation but also exposes children to a type of light that can disrupt sleep. 

Similarly, a bedtime routine should exclude drinks with excess sugar or caffeine, such as soda, juice, and many teas. While a light snack can prevent hunger at bedtime, large meals should be avoided late in the evening because they may negatively affect sleep.

While daytime exercise can promote healthy sleep at night, parents should be careful about vigorous physical activity before bedtime because it may cause excess stimulation.

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Bedtime Routines for Older Children

Children’s sleep needs change as they get older. In developing greater mental and physical abilities, children’s sleep patterns and challenges can evolve, which may require adjusting their bedtime routine.

Many basic principles of creating good sleep routines apply to children of virtually any age. For example, even as children get older, it is beneficial for sleep routines to be consistent, include ways to relax at night, and avoid screen time and caffeine. 

However, there may be some special considerations for children in elementary school, middle school, and high school. 

Children in Elementary School

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children from ages 6 to 12 get between 9 and 12 hours of sleep every day. However, some school-aged children have problems with falling asleep, nighttime awakenings, or delayed bedtimes. This may create anxiety about sleep that worsens their sleep problems.

At this age, parents should continue to focus on establishing a standard bedtime routine. Setting clear limits for a child’s sleep schedule and use of electronics can help correct habits that detract from nightly sleep. 

In addition, parents can restrict any non-sleep activities in bed in order to help create a stronger association between being in bed and actually sleeping. The bedtime routine can also include a contingency plan for briefly getting out of bed and doing a relaxing activity if a child is unable to fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes.

Children in Middle School

Starting at age 13, it is recommended that children get 8 to 10 hours of sleep per day, but many children of this age struggle to get enough sleep. One contributing factor is that the internal clock of most adolescents causes them to delay their bedtime. This can cut sleep time short if they have an early school start time.

To help maintain a stable sleep schedule, parents should ensure that their nightly routine involves a set bedtime. Having a fixed wake-up time can also encourage healthier sleep patterns. 

For children with a mobile phone or other electronic devices, a bedtime routine should avoid calls, notifications, messages, and games or other apps. Sleep should be the only activity done in bed, and a sleepless child should be encouraged to temporarily get out of bed to relax before trying to get back to sleep. 

Children in High School

The recommended amount of sleep for teenagers is 8 to 10 hours per night. For high school students, though, multiple challenges can disrupt healthy sleep, including:

  • Changes to circadian rhythm that push bedtimes later
  • Academic goals and increased schoolwork
  • A more active social life
  • After-school jobs, sports, and activities

Although high-schoolers have growing autonomy, parents can still set limits and emphasize the importance of a consistent bedtime and a pre-bed routine without screen time. While teenagers may resist this, parents should strive for consistency and try not to reward or give added attention to actions that cause a later bedtime.

Parents should also talk with teenagers about moderating their caffeine intake. In addition to avoiding caffeine at night, teenagers should make sure that they do not use caffeinated drinks to try to overcome insufficient nightly sleep. 

As part of their preparation for bedtime, teens should restrict the use of their bed to sleep only. If they struggle to fall asleep, they should get out of bed for a few minutes and do something relaxing rather than staying in bed while tossing and turning. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Bedtime Routines for Children

When should I set a bedtime routine for a baby?

Research indicates that setting a bedtime routine early in a child’s life can help them get the sleep they need. As early as 3 months old, it can be helpful to start putting an infant in bed drowsy so that they can get used to falling asleep while on their own in bed. 

For other parts of a bedtime routine, parents can gradually establish a series of activities based on their child’s age and development. Activities that promote healthy sleep can often be maintained or adjusted as a child gets older. 

How can a bedtime routine reduce separation anxiety?

For many babies and some children, separation anxiety makes it hard for them to fall asleep if they are not with a parent or caregiver. 

By following the same steps each night, a steady routine can help a child anticipate being alone at bedtime. Parents can also make it clear that light’s out means that there is no more playtime and that parents will not immediately respond to a child crying out. 

How is sleep training related to a bedtime routine?

Starting when a child is around 6 months of age, some parents may decide to try sleep training, which is designed to enable a child to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. 

While a bedtime routine focuses on the lead-up to sleep, many sleep training methods are related to how caregivers respond when a child’s sleep is disturbed. However, parents can think about how bedtime routines and sleep training can work together to encourage positive sleep patterns. 

When should parents talk to a doctor about a child’s sleep problems?

Parents can discuss concerns about sleep with their child’s pediatrician during regular appointments. They can also ask about a referral to a sleep specialist if sleep problems are persistent or severe. 

Creating and following a consistent bedtime routine can help prevent and resolve many sleep challenges, but some children may continue to have difficulty sleeping despite having a standard routine. Parents should make sure to talk with a doctor if they notice that their child has any difficulty sleeping through the night, excessive sleepiness during the day, or abnormal breathing or behaviors during sleep.

About The Author

Dr. Michael Breus

Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert

Michael Breus, Ph.D is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. He holds a BA in Psychology from Skidmore College, and PhD in Clinical Psychology from The University of Georgia. Dr. Breus has been in private practice as a sleep doctor for nearly 25 years. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is also the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, Good Night!, and Energize!

  • POSITION: Combination Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Hot Sleeper

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