Being flexible with the bedtime routine

By two and a half years old, you and Baby have probably settled into a solid bedtime routine to help settle them into sleep mode. But even if you have your family’s pre-sleep routine down to a science, life can be unpredictable. Your family may wind up with a houseful of visitors, embark on a summer filled with travel, or spend a winter dealing with one virus after another. Is it possible to be flexible with Baby’s bedtime routine sometimes without undermining your routine?

Sleep matters, especially for toddlers

No matter how chaotic your life becomes, it’s important not to lose sight of one fact: toddlers need sleep – and a lot of it.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children between the ages of one and two get between 11 and 14 hours of sleep (including naps) per day, while children from three to five need between 10 and 13 hours of sleep. With enough sleep, toddlers are less cranky, more able to deal with daily challenges, and better positioned for good health.

Making sure Baby gets enough sleep every day means making sure to carve out enough time. Since many children need to get up each morning at a specific time for daycare, preschool, or activity schedules, the best way to figure out a bedtime is generally to figure out when wake-up needs to happen, and then count backwards.

The meaning behind the bedtime routine

Bedtime routines are there to help make sure toddlers get the rest they need without evenings filled with tears, drama, and delays, but they also have a broader purpose. Consistent routines give kids a sense of security. Even if they don’t act like it, or even know it, toddlers actually want and look for routines because they offer much-needed stability in a world that often all-too-often frustrates them.

There goes the schedule…

So what do you do when your normal daily life gets upended, and Baby’s bedtime routine just won’t fit into what your day has become? First, don’t worry. A true, “every once in a while” occurrence won’t have much of an effect. What can be troubling is when these changes start to happen pretty regularly. Ongoing or irregular-but-common schedule changes can be confusing for young children, so making sure to stay consistent as often as possible can really make a difference.

  • Get back on track: No matter what the reason, if you find that Baby’s bedtime routine has fallen apart and bedtime is now a free-for-all, you can always start it back up. Let Baby know you’re going to start getting ready for bed by reading stories again, and relaunch your previous routine – or, if there was something about your routine before that didn’t quite fit, this is a great time to alter them. It may take some time for them to adjust, but if you stay consistent, before too long, they'll have fallen into the routine again.
  • Look for ways to keep up the routine: Instead of making allowances for a routine to fall out of use, work toward keeping it going. When grandma comes to visit, ask her to read a story and help supervise teeth brushing instead of abandoning bedtime activities, or re-create your home routine as much as possible while on vacation.

With toddler bedtime routines, “flexible” can be a slippery slope, so look for ways to stay consistent, whenever possible.

  • Laura A. Jana, MD, and Jennifer Shu, MD. “The Four B’s of Bedtime.” Food Fights, 2nd Edition American Academy of Pediatrics. 3/26/12.
  • Rebecca Parlakian and Claire Lerner. “Sleep Challenges: Why It Happens, What to Do.” Zero to Three. 2/29/16.
  • “Healthy Sleep Habits: How Many Hours Does Your Child Need?” American Academy of Pediatrics. 3/23/17.
  • “A Lullaby for Good Health.” Adapted from Healthy Children Magazine, Summer 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics. 6/20/13.
  • “Getting Your Child to Go to Bed & Stay There.” Cleveland Clinic. 6/14/13.
  • “Month 31.” Pediatric Sleep Council.

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