Bedtime routine: The gift that keeps on giving

Of all the things I’ve done as a psychologist who is also a parent, the one I am probably most proud of is my bedtime routine. As I watch other people struggle to get their kids to sleep, or hear about the struggles of kids that keep getting out of bed or will only sleep with a parent present, I feel very grateful of the fact that mine always go down like magic.

The secret recipe started in infancy. After a difficult start with premature twins born before they had a suckle reflex, and six months of having to spend an hour feeding each of them every four hours (meaning we got a maximum of 2 hours sleep at a time), we turned a corner. At six months, we were told by our health visitor that they no longer needed milk in the night and could manage without a feed from the time we went to bed to 7am. So after a late feed at 11pm or midnight we got back our night. There were a few nights with some crying before the new routine was established. The first night pulled on all my emotional hooks, so I went to check and found they were fine and soon settled with me there, so the next night I was able to resist going for the ten minutes it took for the crying to peter out. Two nights later and it was quiet from midnight to seven am and we got back our unbroken sleep and our sanity. Soon after we saw that they were not taking much, if any, milk at the last feed and we were able to withdraw any room service from 7pm to 7am. By then, my night time routine was already in place.

Once baths are done, pyjamas are on and teeth are brushed, the kids get into bed and we make the room darker by closing the blackout curtains. I used to wish them goodnight using the same little rhyme every night, and then move straight to singing. Now they are older, when there is time, we normally have a little chat about the day and read a story – this is one of my favourite Mummy times, as we talk about all kinds of interesting things. Our conversations range from why some children are mean, to where petrol comes from, to why there is war in Gaza, to whether religious beliefs are true or just stories that some people believe and some people don’t, to how families have different configurations, why their second cousin had a brain tumour, or how flowers come back after the winter, or why some people are homeless. I’ve got a strong belief that if they are old enough to ask a question they are old enough to have an honest answer, no matter how difficult that answer is to articulate in simple terms for me as an adult. They have this insatiable thirst for knowledge, and often bring up what they have learnt at other times.

Whenever we have these discussions, my kids amaze me with their compassion and desire for fairness in the world. I still remember being told by a serious-faced four year old that we needed to “send a load of postcards to people in Israel and Palestine to tell them to look after and re-build schools, so that everybody can learn about how to be kind to others, no matter whether they believe in the Hanukkah God or the Eid God”. They were even younger when they explained how they want us to buy things that create employment in less developed countries, because most people have food and houses in England, but the people in other countries would want jobs that let them feed their families. And I remember how nonplussed they were to hear about gay marriage and how they couldn’t understand the examples of prejudice that kept coming up on the news because “its not right to be mean to people because of the colour of their skin or who they love”.

Then after our serious discussions and perhaps a bit of reading (Harry Potter and Rebel Girls seem to be favourites at the moment) it is time to wind down to sleep. Then quiet time begins. That signals that it is no longer the time to have a conversation and anything except the most urgent questions need to wait for the next day. I sing a few songs that they have chosen and a few old favourites, and within 15 minutes they are asleep. If we’ve had a busy day and we are out late, I can skip right to quiet time and go from active to asleep in the same time-frame. Friends and family members are often amazed, but I say its the best example of behavioural conditioning ever. I can even make the kids yawn by singing the same song in the middle of the day!

Of course it isn’t always perfect. If one of them is poorly, or I have been away too much in the week for work, they might stir and say “don’t go Mummy, sing an extra song” or they might wake in the night and come down for a cuddle or some medicine. But we always meet that need as quietly as possible and then return them to bed. Because when they sleep well, and we get quiet time as adults to wind down and catch up as a couple, the whole household is happier. We can flex the routine enough to stay up late for a special occasion or to give a little extra time on weekends or holidays, but we also flex the other way and start winding down earlier if they are tired and irritable. The kids even say “Mummy can we have an early night tonight as I’m feeling a bit tired and I want to have enough energy for swimming tomorrow?”

I know there is a lot of debate about ‘controlled crying’ but the few nights in which we ignored some crying at six months have reaped rewards ever since, and we have a happier family as a result. Of course, it won’t work for everyone. There are plenty of children who are more difficult to get to sleep than ours, but my advice would be to have a very clear routine, to start as young as possible, to be very calm as a parent throughout, and to persist through the difficult bit as quietly and calmly and consistently as possible. Because sleeping well helps all members of the family to regulate their emotional state better and have more positive experiences throughout the day as well as at night. I know I’m happier and more able to focus when I’ve had enough sleep, and the same is true for all members of the family.