You stand at the crib in your baby's room, the lullaby softly singing from the nursery stereo is barely audible over the din of your baby's frustrated cries. The clock in the living room chimes 11 p.m., and you and your partner—for the third time this evening—are trying to put your baby to sleep. As you pick up your crying child and bounce her gently around the room, you wonder if she will ever run out of steam.
Nearly every parent has been in this situation: a late night session of desperately trying to comfort an inconsolable baby or toddler. It is stressful and difficult, to say the least. But, believe it or not, these trying situations for both parent and child can often be avoided with the implementation of a consistent bedtime ritual.
Establishing a bedtime routine not only provides a predictable pattern for your child to recognize—it is also a bonding opportunity for you both and creates healthy, lifelong sleep habits. "Your baby can't tell time, so she is looking to you for queues," says Dr. Harvey Karp, noted pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and the accompanying DVD/Video. Dr. Jodi Mindell, pediatric sleep expert and author of Sleeping Through the Night, adds, "Your baby will be more relaxed if she knows what's coming next. The more relaxed she is, the more likely she'll go to bed easily and fall asleep quickly."
Setting the Stage
Your bedtime ritual begins, strangely enough, first thing in the morning. And it continues throughout the daytime hours. "A peaceful daytime is likely to lead to a restful night," say Drs. William and Martha Sears. "The more attached you are to your baby during the day and the more baby is held and calmed during the day, the more likely this peacefulness is to carry through into the night." If your child is having troubles calming down after the sun sets, take stock of her day's activities. Is she getting enough time in your arms or in the care of a nurturing babysitter? Is your daycare provider a good match for your child? The Sears note, "We have noticed babies who are carried in baby slings for several hours a day settle better at night. Baby-wearing mellows the infant during the day, behavior that carries over into restfulness at night."
Dr. Karp concurs. "When I was a fellow at UCLA, I read of cultures where parents could calm babies in under 60 seconds. . .but, our culture is so different. We don't carry our babies 24 hours a day. If you begin establishing [good sleep] habits from the first days of life, it soon becomes automatic."
It goes without saying that most parents try to spend as much time as their schedules allow with their children. But if you find your busy work schedule prevents you from spending a large quantity of time with your child, remember that quality is what is truly important. Set aside time during the day to devote to your child, take a walk together, play a game, or spend a little alone time on the couch just cuddling. If you use a daycare, you may even wish to sit in for a morning and observe how much one-on-one interaction your child gets with her providers.