Day is Done, Gone the Sun
The time has come for that final bedtime story, nursing session, and tuck-in. If bedtime has been difficult for you and your child in the past, undoubtedly this is a stressful time. Be careful not to give away physical signs that reveal your apprehension. Children are highly observant and read your face, gestures, and postures to help them understand how you are feeling. Keep these moments leading up to bedtime light and affectionate. Speaking softly to your child, smiling often, and sharing loving touches and kisses will relax your baby and let her know that everything is okay—and that you are here for her, even after she falls asleep.
A bedtime story is a part of many family bedtime rituals. Establish a special night-time reading spot, whether it is in your child's bed or in a chair in her nursery, and use this spot only for nighttime and naptime preparations. This will help your baby make the association that it is now time to go to sleep. For nursing babies, you can do the same: choose a special spot to nurse your child or give her one last nighttime bottle and keep that spot as a special part of your bedtime ritual (remember to never put a baby down with a bottle; this can be detrimental to new baby teeth).
For younger children and newborns, swaddling is a beneficial final step in preparing your baby for a good night's sleep. A study done in 2002 at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, found that babies went to sleep more quickly after being swaddled. The study further showed that babies who were swaddled, or wrapped tightly in cloth before being put down to sleep, were also more likely to sleep on their backs—a position that is now recommended by most pediatricians for prevention of SIDS.
An important part of creating a bedtime ritual is developing that final moment when you tuck in your child and wish them sweet dreams. Saying "goodnight" holds many meanings for little ones. Babies will come to associate the words with the action and know this is now the time to close their eyes and go to sleep. And it is important for toddlers to know that this is the last step in their ritual. Use tuck-in time to remind your older child just how much you love her, go over what you enjoyed about the past day together, and tell your little one that you look forward to seeing her in the morning.
Creating a bedtime ritual for you and your child also includes all the minor little steps and minutiae of the evening as well. Try to perform regular tasks in the same order every night—this will also help your child see that bedtime is coming. For example, after your child finishes her dinner, you may give her the same toy to play with or book to page through as you or your partner do the dishes, prepare her bed, and draw a bath. Try to keep each step in its place: dinner, quiet play time, bath, massage, bedtime story, tuck-in chat, bed. This repetition can be very soothing for your child, and she will come to anticipate and welcome each step.
Establishing a bedtime ritual is a personal experience, and will undoubtedly include a bit of trial and error as you figure out what will work best for you and your baby. Be flexible. Keep things simple for younger children; and remember that whatever you decide to incorporate into your ritual will need to be consistently followed (reading three stories each night to your toddler or playing the soundtrack to her favorite Disney movie are not the best ideas). Choose calming rituals: reading, singing, touch, and cuddling are all good activities and good places to start. No matter what you include, try not to rush through the steps—keep your ritual sacred and devote your full attention to your child. Never take away a part of your ritual as punishment—let your child know that no matter what happens during the day, you will always have this special, uninterrupted time to share together.