How to establish a sleep routine for your child

When it comes to establishing a sleep routine for your child there are no hard and fast rules that apply to everyone. Every child is different, but you will probably be able to settle them into a healthy sleep routine sooner rather than later.

Before starting with a sleep routine, however, you should know what your options are and the best tips and tricks to help your little one adjust to a regular sleeping pattern.

Benefits of sleep routines

Encouraging your baby to adopt a regular sleep routine not only sets the foundation for good sleep habits, it’s also a great opportunity to bond with your child. A regular sleep routine is also beneficial because it makes your life much easier and gives you an established pattern for life with your little one. Your child will know what to expect, which is a good thing as experts say infants like to know when things will happen during the day.

Additionally, there’s evidence to suggest that getting enough quality, deep sleep supports good health and learning for babies. A regular sleep routine is a great way to ensure one of your baby’s basic needs – sleep – is always met.

When to start with a sleep routine

There are differing expert opinions on the best time to start with a sleep routine but many say that babies will usually be ready for a regular sleeping pattern between 2 and 4 months of age. Newborns will typically sleep in two to three hour bursts, so you probably shouldn’t try to introduce a regular sleep routine as soon as your baby arrives.

Babies tend to develop more consistent sleeping and feeding routines at the 3 or 4 month stage so you can start planning to introduce a sleep routine at around this time.

Three options for introducing a sleep routine

There are three main options for introducing a sleep routine: parent-led schedules, baby-led schedules and combination schedules.

  1. Parent-led schedules: Following a parent-led schedule means you decide exactly when your baby sleeps and for how long. Initially this might be based on your baby’s own sleeping habits or your paediatrician’s recommendations, but once it’s set you follow the pattern without too much adjustment. However, some experts suggest that too strict a routine can be harmful.
  2. Baby-led schedules: This type of approach is relatively undefined and you generally allow your baby to decide when he or she will sleep and wake. This approach could mean you end up with no set sleeping pattern at all, or that you will only gently encourage your baby to sleep at certain times. This type of approach might work best where your baby quickly develops their own sleep routine without prompting.
  3. Combination schedules: This type of schedule combines the previous two so that you have plenty of flexibility. You might skip a nap if your baby doesn’t show signs of wanting to sleep, or allow your baby to go to bed much earlier if he wants to.

Introduce a bedtime routine

Some experts suggest that the best way to ease your baby into a regular sleep routine is to have a bedtime ritual. This could involve bathing before bedtime, putting on pyjamas and then a feed before turning off the lights. Make sure the room is at a comfortable temperature and your baby is not too hot or cold – ideally the nursery should be between 18 to 21 degrees Celsius.

Quiet reading or singing can also be soothing for babies, while loud clocks, TV or other appliances can be disruptive. Other ideas include dimming the lights, singing a lullaby or having a night-time cuddle. Having the same ritual where you do the same things in the same order every single night tells your baby that it’s time to sleep.

Teach your baby about night and day

You can start teaching your baby about the difference between night and daytime with subtle things. For example, keep your house bright and well-lit during the day and dim and quiet during the night. When you are feeding your baby at night, don’t talk to your baby too much. Ultimately this will help your baby understand that night-time is for sleeping and the daytime is for activities, waking, feeding, play and socialisation.

Track and record

The first few months can be a blur for new parents getting used to irregular sleeping hours and feeding at all times of the day. This is why it’s a good idea to get started early with recording your child’s sleeping (and eating) times so you can easily review what’s happening.

This helps you to identify any patterns that are emerging and then to adapt your routine accordingly. Set up a spreadsheet on your computer or use a dedicated notebook to track what’s happening.

Watch out for patterns to build on

More often than not your baby will provide you with cues and patterns that you can build their sleep routine on. When your baby’s internal rhythms become more evident at the three or four-month stage, you can take the opportunity to start nudging your child towards a sleep routine. Watch out for body language or behaviour – for example, rubbing eyes – that suggest your baby is ready to be put to bed. When you notice these cues you can start taking them through your bedtime routine to encourage them to sleep.

Work on the baby drop-off

At the end of your bedtime routine you will notice your baby getting drowsy and dropping off. If your baby is receptive to it, place your baby into his or her cot at the end and let them drop off by themselves. You can expect a few tears the first few times you do this if your baby is used to falling asleep in your arms.

In the earlier months you might have to stay in the nursery for longer and rock or gently sing your baby to sleep until your little one learns to drop off themself. You might need to do the same if your baby wakes throughout the night. One way to teach your baby to drop off by himself is to move your chair farther and farther away each night until you are out of sight and outside the room.

Stay flexible as your baby grows

Remember that encouraging a regular sleeping pattern is an ongoing process and your baby’s sleep routine will probably change and be disrupted as they goes through growth spurts. Stay flexible as you continue to track your child’s sleep patterns and adapt as necessary. This could include going to bed earlier or later each night or introducing new steps into your bedtime routine – such as adding a soft toy, introducing story time or including a gentle massage before lights out.

Sometimes your baby will need much more sleep or go back to waking up throughout the night. Keep encouraging your little one to adhere to a regular sleeping pattern while accommodating their shifting needs. Striking the perfect balance can be hard, but keep in mind your baby’s sleep routine will continue to change as they grow and that some variation is perfectly fine.

There are many benefits to having a regular sleep routine for your baby. It can seem like a challenge in the early months, but with a bit of effort you can encourage your baby to sleep to a routine that fulfils their health and developmental requirements.

For those nights when you are up late breastfeeding, a great tip is to breastfeed on your side so that if your baby dozes off you can get up without waking them. This is just one of the many new parenting hacks in our ebook, 50 Hacks For New Parents