Developing a predictable routine during waking hours might just be the secret to getting your baby to sleep at night.

Children crave consistency. Right from birth, they’ll feel safer, more secure and reassured if they understand the pattern of “when this happens, then this happens.”

Whether your little one is a newborn, older baby, or toddler, your family will benefit from better sleep once you commit to establishing a solid daily routine that goes above and beyond a basic bedtime routine.

The key to this solid daily routine is to establish daily patterns that your child can easily recognize from day to day.

Strict time-based schedules are unnecessary and even possibly harmful, particularly when your baby is still young. For example, young babies need the flexibility that comes along with feeding on demand and following age-appropriate wake windows for sleep.

Trying to force your baby to fit a specific sleep schedule often overtires them, potentially leading to worse sleep outcomes for the entire family.

Instead of following a rigid schedule throughout the day, build a loose routine based off the activities that you’ll keep consistent, day to day. Predictable routines not only help with sleep, but they can set your child up for success socially and academically in the long run.

The easiest way to establish a routine is to focus on your child’s morning wake-up time, meals, movement, pre-bedtime, and bedtime activities. As your child gets older, you’ll likely include additional activities in your daily routine.

It’s hugely beneficial to establish a consistent morning wake-up time and associated routine. Although we want to be flexible and allow the “schedule” to vary from day to day, a consistent morning wake-up time helps increase a baby’s drive to sleep for naps.

By increasing this drive or sleep pressure, babies are better able to take longer naps throughout the day. As babies turn into toddlers, an established morning wake-up time helps avoid nap resistance and maintains a reasonable bedtime too.

When your little one wakes up for the day, create a simple routine so that they understand it’s time to start their day. Start by coming into the room with a bright, “Good morning!” Then open the blinds, turn on the lights, and pick them up for a snuggle and a diaper change.

Setting a consistent morning wake-up time also helps to provide some daily predictability for parents and caregivers.

After the first few weeks of life, a natural morning wake-up time will likely settle somewhere between about 6 to 7 a.m. This aligns best with your little one’s natural biological clock and helps ensure a reasonable bedtime no later than 6 to 8 p.m.

Building a routine based on these two consistent times in your day will naturally build more predictability into your day overall.

Even before a baby begins eating solids, it’s useful to establish a pattern of what happens before and after milk feedings. For example: wake, feed, burp, tummy time.

As you begin adding solids, try to offer meals at approximately the same times each day, surrounded by similar circumstances. For example: wake, milk feeding, playtime, solid feeding, playtime.

As they get older and/or if they have any tummy discomfort, you may also want to ensure adequate time for proper digestion between meals and sleep.

A simple routine for feeding solids to babies might begin by announcing, “It’s time for breakfast!” Then you’d put them down into their chair with their bib on, feed them while chatting to them and making eye contact, and finish with demonstrating and talking through the clean-up process.

Mealtime routines provide excellent opportunities for bonding and connection with your little one, which supports a more relaxed transition into nap times.

All little ones need regular physical activity to learn, grow and develop normally. Your baby needs regular tummy time and rolling practice.

As your baby becomes a toddler, and they learn how to walk (and run!), it becomes even more important to build in regular physical activity to help them get all their “wiggles” out.

Not only is regular movement important for your child’s health, it’s also important to ensure they are tired enough for good rest (which in turn helps to improve their health).

As much as possible, try to ensure that your toddler is getting at least 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity every morning and afternoon. Taking their exercise outside has the additional benefit of exposing them to the natural light their circadian rhythm needs for good quality sleep.

As the day winds down and you look forward to getting your kiddo into bed for the night, don’t forget about a pre-bedtime routine. A solid pre-bedtime routine beautifully supports a full night’s rest for the entire family.

Ensure that you’ve allocated enough time for all the steps you need to complete before the bedtime routine begins by “working backwards.”

For example, if your child’s bedtime is 8 p.m. and the bedtime routine typically takes you 30 minutes from start to finish, then you know you’ll have to begin the routine by 7:30 p.m. You can then plan to ensure that outdoor, play, and dinner times are all completed well in advance.

Try to keep the activities that come directly before the bedtime routine as calm and relaxed as possible. For all age groups, this could include play time with a quiet game or toys in a room with the curtains partially drawn.

Here is a sample pre-bedtime routine:

  • 5 p.m. outdoor playtime
  • 5:20 p.m. indoor playtime
  • 5:45 p.m. dinner
  • 6:15 p.m. quiet indoor playtime
  • 6:30 p.m. bedtime routine
  • 7 p.m. bed

All the work you’ve put into a solid daily routine has led to this.

If you’ve helped your little one understand the pattern of “when this happens, then this happens” throughout the entire day, then the bedtime routine becomes a natural and relaxed next step.

This will help decrease bedtime fears, anxiety and resistance, and set you both up for a great sleep, every single night.

In fact, 2017 research has shown that establishing a bedtime routine can improve sleep outcomes and increase sleep duration in as little as 3 nights!

I recommend that you establish a 5- to 10-minute bedtime routine right from birth, increasing this to 20 to 30 minutes at about 3 months old. You should aim to maintain this 20- to 30-minute bedtime routine right through toddlerhood and beyond, though the steps included in your routine are likely to change as your little one gets older.

Bedtime routines are individual and unique to each family. However, there are a few key building blocks that you can incorporate into your own family’s bedtime routine at any age.

Whatever routine you land on, be sure that you are completing your routine steps in approximately the same order every night to help increase predictability. Consider these options:

Bath

Many families love their nightly bath time. Other families don’t find it relaxing and may even find it stressful. Regardless, if you choose to include a bath in your routine, you don’t need to commit to doing it every night. This can remain flexible from night to night.

Change

The simple act of picking out pajamas and putting them on offers another opportunity to help little ones understand the pattern of “when this happens, then this happens”.

Massage

Both infants and toddlers can benefit from a gentle massage every night. For babies, try a belly or hand massage. For toddlers, try a back or foot massage.

Books

Reading the same books every night in the same order helps provide comfort and familiarity. It also helps little one see books as pleasurable, which sets the stage for future literacy.

If your little one seems fussy when you read them a book (a common phenomenon in babies), simply give them another book or toy to hold while you read. You can also read or tell stories while you walk around the room with them. They don’t need to sit still, which may be asking a lot of some active babies and toddlers.

Songs

Singing the same songs every night in the same order serves the same purpose — more comfort and familiarity.

Sleep phrase

Using the same sleep phrase immediately before bed every night helps your child understand that it’s time for sleep now. A simple, “Good night, sleep tight! Mama loves you,” goes a long way.

Using a sleep phrase regularly will help your baby understand the bedtime routine. You’re providing yet another opportunity for them to feel comfort and reassurance as you’re narrating exactly what’s happening and what’s coming next.

If you’re experiencing any difficulties with your little one’s sleep, it’s really worthwhile to ensure that you’ve established a consistent and predictable routine — both during the day and at night.

By helping your child learn the rhythm and patterns of your family’s life, you are also helping them learn when and how they are expected to sleep. This will absolutely lead to the best sleep possible for them and for you, now and in the long run.


Rosalee Lahaie Hera is a Certified Pediatric & Newborn Sleep Consultant, a Certified Potty Training Consultant, and the founder of Baby Sleep Love. She’s also a mom to two beautiful little humans. Rosalee is a researcher at heart with a background in healthcare management and a passion for sleep science. She takes a highly analytical approach and uses proven, gentle methods to help families (like yours!) get the sleep they need. Rosalee is a big fan of fancy coffee and great food (both cooking it and eating it). You can connect with Rosalee on Facebook or Instagram.