Peace is that time after the kids go to bed, when the entire house is quiet. You know, that golden two hours when there is no fighting, no drawn-out tantrums, no high-pitched screeches, no relentless questions. It's pretty great, right?
That is, until little heads start showing up in the living room in the middle of your late-night TV time looking for a glass of water, or telling you they can't sleep, or asking for just one more story, please. Suddenly, your quiet time turns into time spent putting your kids back to sleep — over and over again.
The secret to establishing a relaxing and effective bedtime routine is simple: treat your little ones like you would yourself. No, I don't mean giving them a glass of wine or a lengthy novel to help them nod off. I mean, look at the things you do to get into a calm state of mind, and apply that to your children, from 18 days old to 18 years old.
When I was a kid, we never had a strict bedtime (perks of being a homeschooler, I guess?). So when my 3-year-old, Logan, was born, my mom told me to just put him to bed when I went to bed. Well-intentioned advice, but it didn't work for me. Every night was an endless procession of screaming and fighting with him to fall asleep, which almost always ended in tears for both of us. So I did what sleep-deprived parents do, and I turned to the internet.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine released some helpful sleep guidelines in 2016, which were endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. They recommend infants sleep about 12-16 hours over a 24-hour period (including naps), toddlers sleep 11-14 hours (including naps), preschoolers sleep 10-13 hours (including naps), grade-schoolers from 6 to 12 years old sleep nine-12 hours, and teens from 13 to 18 years old sleep eight-10 hours.
From there, you need to count backward. If your toddler needs to wake up at 7 a.m., lay them down at 7 p.m. If your fourth grader needs to wake up at 7 a.m., they can go to bed at 9 p.m. Don't be surprised if it takes them a few nights to get used to it (and make sure to adjust it for your needs; Logan sleeps as little as possible, and my 18-month-old, Liam, loves his bedtime and naps).
Once your lights-out time is set, allow some time before bed to create a calming routine to help them fall asleep peacefully. This takes anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes for us, depending on the night.
Most of the time, my husband and I start the kids' bedtime routine with a bath. This makes going to bed seem more fun — who can resist all those bubbles? — and less like a punishment. Afterward, my kids get rubbed down with lotion (it's not always a mini massage, don't worry), and they get to pick out their jammies. Next, we help them brush their teeth, comb their hair, and take their nightly allergy medicine and multivitamin. Finally, we take them on the potty (Liam just wants to do it to be like his brother; he's not actually potty trained yet), then give them a clean pull-up and diaper, respectively.
When the inevitable meltdown happens, we help them take deep breaths, we give them space to be upset, or we bribe them with more books or songs (hey — whatever works, right?). If one of the adults is starting to get frustrated, we step out and let the other one take over. Or we take turns putting them to bed and letting the other take a night off. Making it quiet and peaceful before bed is important; if we start raising our voices, the kids will, too. When both kids are finally ready, we let them pick out books (their favorite part!) for us to read to them, then we dim the lights and sing them a few songs before they get tucked in, kissed, hugged, and told to stay in bed.
I'll be the first to admit bedtime is not always calm. But it is effective. On weekends or days when we are out late, they are both tired and cranky from missing their 8 p.m. bedtime. In fact, the later we put them to bed, the earlier they wake up! I am so thankful I started a bedtime routine when Logan was 6 months old. By the time Liam was born 12 months later, he was able to just go with the flow and fall in line with the same routine. He actually started sleeping through the night at 4 months old! Now, they love doing everything together, including sleeping in the same room.
When your kids are older, their pre-bedtime ritual might be a little different. But you can still help them fall asleep faster and sleep through the night better. The National Sleep Foundation calls it having good "sleep hygiene" (which, by the way, even adults can benefit from). They recommend soaking up natural light during the day, as well as making sure to get at least 10 minutes of exercise daily — even walking helps. Then, limit caffeine or other disruptive foods before bed, such as citrus fruits, fatty or fried meals, spicy dishes, or anything with carbonation. (For Mom and Dad, too much alcohol before bed can keep you up, as your body will start to process it in the second half of the night.) Finally, instead of watching TV or scrolling through Instagram before bed — as exposure to blue light can mess up your circadian rhythm — older kids and adults should do something relaxing, including taking a warm shower, reading a book, doing light stretches, or listening to calming music.
Remember that consistent bedtime we talked about with babies and toddlers? Yeah, that helps older kids and adults, too. A 2014 study by the American Psychological Association found that sleep deprivation impairs memory and concentration, increases stress, disrupts the body's metabolism, and can put people at a greater risk of car accidents and getting sick. Yikes!
Teaching your kids how to wind down before bed and get enough sleep is vital to their health — and will help them throughout life. It also gives you that well-deserved alone time at the end of the day. Whether you are a parent to a baby, a kid in elementary school, a teenager, or some combination, it's never too late to try out these tips for creating a bedtime routine. When you're catching up on work tonight (or the latest episode of your favorite TV show) in peace, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. You did it!