Inside: Taming bedtime chaos can feel impossible, especially when you have more than a couple of kids close in age. These tips will make creating a night routine for kids so much easier.
Bedtime with kids close in age (especially multiple kids close in age!) can be a little chaotic, at least when attempting to follow any kind of ideal nighttime routine.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan compared bedtime with four kids to “hostage negotiations in reverse…just stay in there! I’ll give you whatever you want! Just stay!”
I completely and totally agree with him.
(Just so you know, if your kids are compliant, peaceful, angelic beings who lay their heads on their pillows without asking and never ever leave their room unbidden, this is probably not the post for you.)
Bedtime Routines: Every Parent’s Secret Struggle
When we first started struggling with bedtime (around the time kid number four came along), a good friend told me about a parenting seminar hosted by the local public school.
“The biggest question was how to get kids to go to bed,” she said, incredulity showing plainly on her face, and I nodded along, pasting a similar expression on my face.
Secretly? I wanted to be a fly on the wall in that seminar.
[Best-Kept Parenting Bedtime Secret for Middle of the Night Visitors: If you have middle of the night little people visitors and don’t want them sleeping your bed, this foam mattress saved our life when one of our kids consistently woke up in the middle of the night for a long long time. Simply roll it out before you go to bed, and put a pillow and blanket on top – no scrambling for them in the middle of the night!]
There’s a reason for all the questions about bedtime, though: you can’t really make your kids sleep.
If you think you can, seriously think about it: can anyone make you go to sleep? You can do everything right as far as routine, environment, and timing goes, but at the end of the day, the choice to let their bodies fall asleep is theirs.
So many factors affect bedtime: parenting style, number of children, the age gap between them, those children’s temperaments, their sleep needs, bedroom setup, type of bed.
The list could go on and on.
And the bigger your family gets, the more balls are in the air. The more balls there are, the more likely they are to change and affect one another. You get one routine down only to have something (or someone) come along to disrupt your carefully choreographed dance.
Another baby comes along.
One child drops a nap.
The oldest suddenly needs a little less sleep than she used to.
Our best sleeper, for instance, the one who used to fall asleep with the light on while we were still reading books? The one who asked to go to bed? No longer.
He recently started resisting bedtime with dogged persistence. C’mon! You were the only one giving us hope that bedtime would one day be a pleasant event.
Bedtime at our house is far from perfect, but there are definitely ways to make your nighttime routine with kids go more smoothly.
(See our updated night routine for older kids in the second section! I don’t exaggerate when i say it’s been life-changing.)
10 Essentials for a Better Night Routine for Kids
1) Expect your bedtime routine to need regular troubleshooting.
For whatever reason, I thought bedtime was a “set it and forget it” kind of thing. Once you established a routine, that was it.
That is absolutely not the case.
Expectations are everything. If you expect bedtime to never need tweaking, you will be constantly frustrated. On the other hand, if you expect bedtime to be a work in progress, you will approach it as a learner.
With a learner attitude, you are far less likely to get discouraged by bumps in the road.
2) Play to your strengths.
Each parent brings different strengths to the table. To the kids, my husband is the “player” and the “joker”. Even when he tries to be serious at bedtime, his very presence riles them up.
I, on the other hand, am known as the “enforcer”, the one who gets things done and keeps routines going in our house (if you can call some of them routines, judging by how frequently they change).
For a while, I ignored the circumstances and tried to make my husband help with bedtime. It didn’t go well, no matter what we did.
Once I accepted that he wasn’t going to be much help with the majority, I started using him to help with “the weakest link”, while I managed the rest.
Accept the things you cannot change about yourself and your spouse. Play to your strengths, and bedtime will be better for everyone.
3) Take the “weakest link” out of the equation.
Currently, the one disrupting our bedtime routine the most is our youngest, now 16 months old. As much as we love him, we would love him just a teensy bit more if he liked to sleep.
But he continues to hate sleep and resist it with everything in him.
When he does sleep, it is restless and fitful. I should know, since he still co-sleeps (check out Tip #10). Half-hearted attempts to get him to sleep in a crib last a few hours at best, and they are usually the culmination of a succession of especially wretched nights that end with my husband driving him in the car until he falls asleep.
I could invest a half hour to an hour attempting to put the toddler to sleep, but it’s a gamble and then puts off bedtime for the rest.
Instead, my husband is usually on baby duty, either playing with him downstairs, watching Praise Baby (life saver, seriously) on repeat, or driving him in the car to get him to sleep.
4) Assume they will be hungry.
Because we don’t have a “clear your plate” rule in our house, the kids are usually hungry before bed. I used to get bedtime snacks reluctantly, and admittedly with frustration and anger.
When I started incorporating bedtime snacks (usually fruit) into our bedtime routine, the kids went to bed full and happy.
5) Split your children into rooms based on sleep needs.
Even the most die-hard advocate of shared rooms will crack after night after night of night-light or no night-light wars. When siblings clash or consistently rile each other up, you may want to consider changing your sleeping arrangements.
At times, moving a sibling out of a shared room for a few nights helps “reset” bedtime. Where do you put the ousted sibling? As long as it’s temporary, perhaps a spare room or even your master bedroom can work for a few nights. If not, consider unconventional ideas like using a small alcove in a family room.
6) Use more actions, fewer words.
My husband constantly shakes his head at my nighttime verbal ramblings. For some reason, I feel, in the moment, that saying more words will get my point across. Really, to kids, it sounds just like Charlie Brown’s teacher (click HERE, especially if you have no idea what I’m referring to).
When the kids are dragging out bedtime, suppress the desire to lecture.
Simply shutting off the lights and turning on the nightlight gets the point across.
7) Give yourself more time than you think you need.
You know the people who consistently show up ten minutes late? One reason they are late is because they always underestimate the time it takes to get from one place to the next.
I have the same problem with bedtime. I always think it will take less time than it actually does. Fifty million food, water, book, and potty requests later, it is way past bedtime!
Start way earlier than you think you need to, and you just might hit the time you want.
8) Don’t look at the clock once your night routine starts.
After we had our fourth child, I found myself getting increasingly angry at bedtime. I would look at the clock several times and realize we were so far past the bedtime we were shooting for.
Blocked goals = anger.
Once I realized my clock watching and anger were connected, I made the conscious choice to stop looking at the clock after I started bedtime.
My level of engagement with my kids and the tone of bedtime drastically improved.
9) Choose your routine wisely.
You might have just two kids right now. And with one or two kids, baths every night, reading multiple stories, and singing endless songs might work for you.
Three kids? You need to start cutting corners.
If you’re at the beginning of your parenting journey, I recommend thinking through sustainability. I mean, you can do baths every night, read book after book and book, and stay in the room forever. It’s a sweet time, really it is.
But if you have an oldest child anything like mine, she will not like it when you suddenly need to back pedal and rewrite the bedtime routine she’s had her whole life just because a little pip squeak came along to ruin everything.
Think ahead. Ok, maybe you can read one more book, but think about whether or not bathtime needs to be part of the bedtime routine. There are lots of other options for bathtime.
And you’ll thank me three kids from now.
10) Keep your child in a crib AS LONG AS POSSIBLE.
Our third child was the best baby sleeper I’ve ever known. People actually had to verify his existence because he was asleep all the time.
We kept him in a crib until just after he turned three. He never attempted to climb out; perhaps we would have moved him sooner. But to know that even one out of three was contained until we decided it was time to get him out? Priceless.
Our oldest slept through the night from eight months until we decided a toddler bed was the latest and greatest thing, the next adventure.
Enter the next phase of our lives called “permanent interrupted sleep”, during which I (or on rare occasions…like I was deathly ill…my husband) was awakened by our little darling at 2 a.m. every single night.
Oh how I hated that toddler bed.
And I’m so wishing our youngest had learned how to sleep in a crib. Please please learn from us and love the crib.
Night Routine for Older Kids [Update]
As our kids have grown (and we added one – now we’re up to 5!), we needed to reevaluate our bedtime routine yet again.
Sadly, I needed to drop reading at night to the older kids, now ages 7 and 5. It was simply too much to read to the boys, then my three-year-old, and finally my oldest.
I still read books to my three-year-old. For the older kids, we work it into our daily and weekly routines instead.
My husband created the genius night routine for my older kids. It goes something like this:
1) Last Food in the Kitchen
They choose a final nighttime snack to eat in the kitchen. Orginally, we allowed them to eat it in their rooms, but we found that as the boys grew tired, they were more resistant to using the bathroom and brushing their teeth.
Relocating to the kitchen made the next step easier, as the bathroom is on the way to their room from the kitchen.
2) Potty, Jammies, Teeth
Next, they use the restroom, put on their pajamas and brush their teeth.
3) Audiobooks with Dim Lighting
My husband and I recently upgraded our phones, and we now use our older iPhones for audiobooks. We get most of our audiobooks for free using our library’s Overdrive app.
Did you know that you can purchase audiobooks on Audible without actually subscribing? We’ve purchased a few this way (Wizard of Oz narrated by Anne Hathaway was one of them) when they are less than $3.
The kids turn off the lights and use a nightlight (we have these, and they work great!) with dim, warm lighting. They set their sleep timer to 30 or 45 minutes and listen to their audiobooks as they fall asleep.
Lighting is key! Before, we had white light nightlights that didn’t help them fall asleep. The dim, orange/warm light helps them wind down and fall asleep easily when (or before) their audiobooks turn off.
While they are listening to their audiobooks, I can give my full attention to my three-year-old, while my husband holds the baby if needed.
This night routine has been a game-changer for us, and bedtime goes so much better!
A Perfectly Smooth Night Routine for Kids? It’s a Myth
While my husband continues to hope that someone invents some kind of legal and safe kid tranquilizer for bedtime, we continue to muddle through night after night.
Every once in a while, we have the perfect bedtime. Everyone goes to bed at the ideal time. No resistance. No requests for more food, water, trips to the bathroom. Just blissful sleep. Can’t it be like this every night?
A mom can dream.
P.S. If your own evening routine is a major struggle, check out this course (by a mom who has routines down to science)! Because if can get your ducks in a row at night, your mornings will automatically be better, too.