Expert Opinion

Why is a bedtime routine so important?

If you’re pulling your hair out at around 7pm every night as your littlies resist bedtime, you’ll be all too familiar with the rollercoaster of feelings – waves of exhaustion and feelings of frustration topped off with a bit of guilt (because as we know – parents feel guilt far too often). 
When families visit me clinically to get help for their child’s sleeping difficulties, they’re usually extremely tired and while they can tell me what they think they ‘should’ be doing, they often explain how hard it is to apply ‘strategies’ at night-time when the parent and child are both tired after a long day.

My ‘solution’ for this predicament is to set up a system that minimises thinking on the spot so that you can’t be swayed by second-guessing yourself. It also means you don’t need to try to devise strategies when you’re tired and under pressure. What is this solution? It is called…drum roll please…a Bedtime Routine!

Yes, the humble bedtime routine has a lot to offer. It provides clear boundaries so your child knows what to expect. It is predictable so it instils a sense of calm because there is less chance of unexpected changes, promoting a safe and secure environment for your child. 

Because a bedtime routine is the same every night, you don’t have to work hard to remember it and it is not location-specific, so you can still use it on holidays. Who knew there were so many benefits to a simple bedtime routine? Let’s unpack these benefits a bit more:

Predictability in a night-time routine puts some structure around a sometimes scary time for kids. Bedtime can often be the only time your child is by themselves, and this time to be alone with their thoughts can be uncomfortable for them. Functional rituals have a tendency to decrease anxiety and allow us to prepare for sleep. Think about the things you need to do yourself before you go to bed so that you can settle and relax – it is the same for our kids. Many children are exhausted by bedtime and as such have less tolerance for even a sideways glance from a sibling, so the consistency provided by the routine allows them to know what’s coming up next so they can decrease anxiety and the tricky behaviours that are associated with this. 

Connection is the other big factor here. Bedtime is often one of the only times many parents have the chance to connect one on one with their children. It’s not the time to open up a conversation about their worries, but it can be a beautiful time to tell them how proud you are of them, talk about things you’re both grateful for, or promote healthy practices such as mindfulness together. 

So now that we know why a bedtime routine is so helpful and important for development, let’s talk about how to implement it more easily:

  1. Make a habit of setting aside time earlier in the day to talk about any worries or big feelings your child might have. This way you won’t open up a can of worms right at bedtime, but you also won’t feel that you’re dismissing your child’s emotions.
  2. Remove screens two hours before bedtime 
  3. Avoid bright lights in the lead up to bedtime. If it is bright outside, pull down the blinds and put some low-light lamps on around the house. 
  4. Try to keep yourself calm as the parent – try not to multitask so that you can focus on your child’s needs which will ultimately get them to sleep more quickly so you can then shift your attention to other things more easily later. 
  5. Have a consistent sequence of events, or a ‘functional ritual’ such as dinner, bath, PJs on, reading together in bed, a good night story and kiss, say ‘good night’, then leave the room.
  6. Set clear expectations to encourage your child to push through their desire to resist sleeping. For example, this can be a special breakfast in the morning if they go straight to sleep at bedtime.

Sleep difficulties in toddlers and preschoolers can be frustrating for parents, but when they are persistent and chronic, it can also be a sign of underlying problems. If you’re concerned about your child’s sleep – whether you feel they’re having too much and they’re still tired, or not enough sleep, I recommend seeking help from a psychologist or pediatrician for peace of mind. 

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
Photo by cottonbro