A Bedtime Routine So Successful It Hasn't Changed in 15 Years
Your life is full, there's a lot on your plate, and you probably want a super fast easy answer. So here it is, the bedtime routine that's so good I haven't changed it in 15 years:
For those of you who would like a little (edit: a LOT) more than a checklist, here is an explanation of each of the steps.
Bath: This is my favorite time to let baby and children play.
For babies, I like to bathe them in the sink or a smaller tub and allow the water to continue to run. This ensures the bath water will stay warm and comfortable, and the sound of running water is relaxing to your baby.
For toddlers and older children, I make sure the water is warm enough that they can play for a while, and I give them plenty of time to laugh, splash, and enjoy the warm soothing water. For all ages, I have a bath song. I did not make it up, one of the incredible mothers I had the privilege of working with very early in my career sang it to her little girl, and it stuck with me. It goes like this "Gotta wash those elbows, gotta wash that neck, gotta wash those arms, and that belly. You bet! Gotta wash those knees, gotta wash those legs, gotta wash those piggies every day if you please. Aaaand.... then you... swim like a fish, swim like a fish, swim like the fishies do." Very rarely do I get away with only singing it once. Usually I sing it in slow motion then again super fast.
My rule-of-thumb is usually that when they start standing up in the tub its about time for them to get out.
Brush Teeth: Most of the time I find it easiest to brush teeth while the kids are in the bathtub. This is assuming they’re stable when sitting, and not wildly opposed to having their teeth brushed (but if they are, don’t worry, I have a song for that). I use a very small dot of toothpaste on the bristles, gently hold the child’s bottom jaw to help stabilize them and encourage limited movement while I’m brushing. The toothbrushing song may sound familiar. Here it goes: “brusha brusha brusha here's the new Ipana with the brand new flavors. Its dandy for your teeth.” Can you name that movie?
I sing this song twice while brushing, once for the top teeth and once for the bottom teeth. Then if the child is old enough and willing, I let them hold the toothbrush for the third round. At the end of this round I hold out the “ee” sound in “teeth” for a long time, making a big show of the song ending and allowing a little more time to scrub their little teethers.
If the child insists on holding the toothbrush from the beginning, I try not to let them get ahold of it but if they do I gently pull it away, hold it out of their reach, look in their eyes, and say pointing to myself then them “remember, I get two times, then its your turn.” This works 99% of the time. Sometimes they reach for the toothbrush again before I’m finished brushing, and I pause to remind them again. If they spit the toothbrush out, or clamp down I pause the song until I can start brushing again. This is also where lightly holding their bottom jaw is helpful, because you can encourage them to open their mouth back up. Most of the time their tiny mouths need to spit before the third round of the song.
Naked Play: When I take the children out of the tub I like to wrap them in a towel, swoop them up, and move them to a safe place drying them frantically during the movement pretending they're going to freeze.
Of course I have a drying off song (because if you know me, I have a song for everything). It goes like this. “There is water in your hair in your hair, there is water in your hair in your hair, there is water in your hair, its getting everywhere, there is water in your hair in your hair. There are boogers in your nose in your nose, there are boogers in your nose in your nose, there are boogers in your nose cause that’s where they grow, there are boogers in your nose in your nose. There is lint in your belly in your belly there is lint in your belly in your belly, there is lint in your belly its getting kind of smelly, there is lint in your belly in your belly. There is jam in your toes in your toes, there is jam in your toes in your toes, there is jam in your toes how it got there no one knows, there is jam in your toes in your toes.” There’s a reason I didn’t pick up a career as a songwriter during my time in Nashville, but hey, the kids like it.
Once they’re dry enough, I put on their diaper/pullup/underwear and let them naked play for a few minutes. I could go into the hippy dippy benefits of letting the kids run sans clothing for a bit, but it really boils down to the fact that I HATE trying to pry tight pajamas onto their tiny, wiggly, tired, damp bodies. So I let them air dry a little, and everyone seems happier for it.
Pajamas: This is pretty straight forward. Again, I have a song for this (are you tired of me singing about everything yet?” In case you’re interested it goes like this: “Shirts goes over your head over your head, shirts goes over your head over your head, Hi-Ho (insert your child’s name) shirts goes over your head. Pants go on your legs, pants go on your legs….” etc. You get the drift.
**Move teeth brushing here if it doesn’t work to brush them during bath time**
Books: Reading is possibly my favorite part of the bedtime routine. I have a pretty strict two book policy. Unless there are more than two kids then I let each of them choose a book. Two isn’t a magic number. You can read as many books as fits into your routine, but always read at least one.
Ways this routine has changed: We have lots of time to read more books, the children are listening very attentively, they ask for “books” in their sweet little tiny voice, they didn’t choose the book I wanted to read so I read their choices and mine. I have very fond memories of reading one little girl “as many books as she wants” which many times topped out at 12. In the moment I thought this was WAY too many, and it took forever. Now that she reads to herself, I look back and cherish those moments snuggled up in the rocking chair in her nursery. I also have memories of two sweet boys who like to be told stories instead of reading them. I am a TERRIBLE story teller, and wish someone would write a book of story starters to help people like me out.
Two books is my “rule”. It allows me to set a limit when children are trying to drag out bedtime. Its an expectation that creates stability in their routine. If you are struggling with bedtime, please stick tight to the two book rule. Remove the variables and points of change to help your child build a solid routine that ends smoothly as creating too many decision making opportunities for their tired little brains is enough to cause a pre bedtime meltdown.
If you are starting early at building a healthy bedtime routine, or your child is doing great with bedtime, use this part of the evening to make calm memories of favorite books, rocking, snuggles, conversation, and love.
If you want more book ideas send me a message, and I'll come up with some ideas your child is sure to love.
Tuck In: as a child this was my favorite part of bedtime. Still to this day I tuck my feet in, because my dad used to tuck them in when I was little. I always make a point of covering the children up. Its an act of love, and tells my brain that I have put them safely in their bed. It allows me to lay eyes on them being safe, cozy, and snuggled up so I can trust they are sleeping well through the night.
If I’m putting a baby to bed this looks like wrapping them up in their sleep sack. With children who have outgrown their sleep sack, sometimes I cover them up and sometimes I tuck them in like a mummy/burrito/caterpillar. Inevitably older kids burst out of their blanket tomb, but the act of doing it in the first place is loving and comforting to them. Even when children are old enough to climb in bed and cover themselves up I still adjust the blankets over them, even just the corner. An act of love.
Song: Are you even surprised there’s a song? I sing three songs to every single child at bedtime. One in Farsi and two more in English that just flow together to make one solid goodnight song. I don’t know how to write/type/spell in Farsi, the song is simple, and the aunt of one family made it up so I am going to leave that one out of this post.
The other song goes like this: “good night Blake, good night Blake, good night Blake, its time to close your eyes. Good night Kira, good night Kira, good night Kira, its time to say good night. I love Sarah, I love Sarah, I love Sarah, yes I do. I love Emma, I love Emma, I love Emma, how ‘bout you.”
Obviously insert your own child’s name into the song where I’ve used the names of other children. When the kids get a little older, I let them choose something to put in place of their name. It gets a little silly sometimes. I’ve sang to chairs, mommy, daddy, Aladdin musical, LEGOs, all kinds of things. The kids love it, and its a good working memory exercise for me when they choose 4 different things to replace each verse of the song. When choosing what/who to sing to becomes a stall tactic, I just remove this part of the routine and start inserting the child’s name again.
If you’re into music, I recommend singing songs that are on the radio or will come up in your child’s life in other ways. Using more popular songs means that when your child grows up, this song will pop up randomly in their life and immediately take them back to these precious moments with you. My dad used to sing Brandy, Fire on the Mountain, and Amie to me at bedtime. Now on rare but special occasions I will be going about my day, and one of them will show up in a playlist at a restaurant or store, and it always puts a smile on my face.
Lights Out: This is the end. Period. There are no drinks, no bathroom trips, no books, snuggles, pacifier searches, extra hugs, eye contact, nothing after the lights go out. If there is something you need to fit into your routine that I do not put in my routine, it belongs before this point in the routine. If your child has a snack, keeps a cup of water on their nightstand, has to pee one last time, says prayers, or you have to spray their room with anti-monster spray it needs to be done before this point. There may be tears, there may be excuses, barring any real traumatic situations this is the point where they stay in bed and you no longer engage. Any further attempts to stall bedtime at this point are met with a kind and loving “Its bedtime. Good night”.
The ONLY exception, you may choose to turn the lights out before you do songs. If that is what works best for your family, then change this to “standing in the doorway, saying goodnight, and closing the door”. All of the above mentioned excuses apply, once you’re in the doorway its a momentary goodnight then firm bedtime.
In case its still driving you crazy, the Ipana toothbrushing song was featured in the movie Grease.
There are extreme situations, different parenting styles, travel, sleeping arrangements, holidays, and celebrations that can all impact how your nighttime routine plays out. This is what has worked for me for the past 15 years, use it to help shape what works best for your family.