Essential Elements of a Baby Bedtime Routine

Peaceful. Participatory. Predictable. These three P’s characterize an infant environment that builds self-confidence and a sense of security. Bedtime is one of the most obvious and important times in an infant’s day to employ these three P’s.

Settling a child down for an afternoon nap or a good night’s sleep can be one of the most difficult and elusive processes in parenting. Establishing consistency is key, of course.  Parent and child are on the same page, and a baby will always feel more secure. Elements may involve bathing, feeding, singing, snuggling and, of course, the age-old ritual of storytelling or reading a favorite book. But whatever the routine, the three P’s are the essential underpinnings:

  • A peaceful sleep environment with minimal stimulation from toys, screens, light, and exterior noise, all of which distract from the matter at hand, and a relaxed, unrushed parent who is available to provide intimate, undivided attention.
  • Gentle, participatory activities like dressing, pulling down a shade, choosing a book.
  • All under the umbrella of predictability, so that our children can anticipate the ritual and even lead when we invite them to make choices. Predictability breeds security, which leads to calm, which is the gateway to relaxation and sleep.

Essential to these P’s is respectful, two-way parent-child communication, which we ideally begin at birth. Authentic person-to-person conversations with our babies make their involvement possible. We can invite them to participate in bathing, diapering and dressing and empower them to predict each step. At the same time, we teach language in the most profound, meaningful manner and promote bonding and trust. In a strictly practical sense, there is nothing that unwinds and calms babies more effectively than simply knowing what comes next in their personal bedtime story. Jamie’s experience illustrates:

“I had to share with you! I’ve been following you and Magda Gerber’s RIE approach since I was pregnant with my now 8-month old daughter, and while I try to stay consistent with most RIE practices, there have been a few that I’ve let slide a little. In particular, our nap/sleep routine. I’d gotten into the habit of nursing and rocking her to sleep. Low and behold, it would take 25+ minutes in order to get her down. Just when I thought she was ready to be put down in her crib, she would cry.  Time for a reset!

The last few times for nap and bedtime, I started nursing her as the first step in our sleep routine, and while doing that, I’d tell her step by step what we would do once she was done nursing: “We will close the door, and then we will turn on the noise machine. Next, we will close the blinds and make the room dark. Lastly, I will give you a cuddle, and then I’ll lay you in the crib and you’ll take a nice rest.

Today, I repeated this to her three times while nursing. And then when it came time to do these things, she was totally engaged in each step — looking at the door, reaching toward the sound machine, and lastly, not crying when I closed the blinds like she usually does. And the most amazing part: when I stood by her crib and gave her a last hug, she put her head on my shoulder and we cuddled for a few moments. Then I set her down and she turned over and went right to sleep. No crying or tossing and turning! It was amazing. My heart is bursting with how smart and attuned and capable these babies are.”

While parents won’t necessarily have such a magical result, the 3 Ps empower us and our babies.


(Thanks so much to Jamie for this story and gorgeous photo!)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Dana George says:

    This totally makes sense to me. I had a wonderful mother in so many ways but she was sometimes too “loving” and I can remember not being able to go to sleep on my own without wanting her well into being 10 and 11 years old. I would dread babysitters because I knew I would be expected to sleep without her. I don’t want to do that to my daughter but I don’t want bedtime to be stressful either. She is 17 months and for many months I did nurse her to sleep. For the last 6 weeks I have been working on slowly helping her learn to sleep on her own by talking her through the steps each night and having confidence in her ability. It has been amazing! We are at the point where I can nurse her for a little, put her in the bed and if I stay in the room – even way over by the door – she will fall asleep quickly on her own with no fuss. I am working on being able to leave the room while she is still awake, and even though I talk her through all the steps and let her know I will be back to check on her she still shows me her displeasure with having me leave her room. I’m just wondering how long to let her be upset without going back into her room to sit with her. As soon as I come back in, even if I don’t say anything, she calms right back down. I’m struggling with letting her feel upset about me not being there and not wanting her to think she can’t do this on her own. I am confident and I have faith in her – she is so amazing! Thanks!

    1. Dana,

      We had the same childhood scenario. I think this is why I am devoted to the development of autonomy.

      I tell parents every day, you aren’t doing it wrong, you are doing it a little too right for a little too long.

      What you are doing sounds like the “sleep shuffle” by Kim West. A good shuffle but that last step of “getting out of the room” is where a lot of mommies get stuck in the dance.

      Here is a small snapshot of a process I use in just such cases.

      1. Tell her the last night you are in the chair. “This is the last night I will remain in the chair. Tomorrow you will fall asleep with me out of the room.”
      2. The next day – Let her help you remove the chair from the room or place it somewhere else where you can sit and do the last part of your ritual.
      2. Do all of this at a time unrelated to sleep as I recommended in my last comment.
      3. Reiterate the process like Jamie did with her child. Do a walk through/dress rehearsal and physically show her how it will look with you coming and going to offer support.
      4. Put her in her crib and let her watch you come and go.
      6. At this age language is very important. Night one it can be helpful to say where you are in the house and when you will be back to check on her – “I will go brush my teeth and then I will come back and check on you.”

      We remain responsive. We remind them that we are listening and that we will be back.

      Your confidence in her ability is the most important part of the emotional environment.

      The next day in a quiet moment tell her what you saw and heard.

      Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
      Author of “The Compassionate Sleep Solution: Calming the cry”

      1. Hi Eileen, how can we in the UK get your new kindle book? Amazon says it’s unavailable for us here and I really want to read it! Thanks.

  2. Janet and Jamie,

    Of course, I love this post. The three P’s set up the two environments that support sleep. 1. The physical environment. 2. The emotional environment.

    I appreciate Jamie’s story. At some point we all get off the path of sleep. And at some point most infants/toddlers have a different response, even to a predictable routine.
    “Just when I thought she was ready to be put down in her crib, she would cry. Time for a reset!”

    I like Jamie’s choice of words – time for a reset. And then she follows through with her actions. Any time we can involve the child in their process physically it is very powerful. Children are physical beings and showing them is part of my preparation process. I call it the dress rehearsal or the walk through. That part can be done at a time unrelated to sleep, earlier in the day, perhaps after a good nap or meal. And then as Jamie demonstrated, gently repeating the process to the child before bed.

    The body does love sleep! And yes the intelligent, attuned, and capable baby knows that.

    Eileen Henry, RIE Associate
    Author of “The Compassionate Sleep Solution: Calming the cry”

    1. Hello Janet and Eileen

      This post comes to me at a time when I had just ‘given up’ and ‘one day he’ll sleep’..

      I’ve done so many sleepless nights up until around 15 months and now he’ll only wake up once usually (he’s 19 months), but he stands up in his crib and I have to walk over and help him lie down and he USUALLy goes back down (though we’ve had a few rough times). I’ve read sleep coaching books, paid for the ‘baby sleep site’ and lost hope because i couldn’t stick to it. I have to rub his back a bit, calm him, nurse him for a few minutes and then he rolls around for about 20 minutes until he gets comfortable and goes to sleep. Depending on the day he’ll be fussy, but I have to be in the room, beside his crib, otherwise he cries and stands up at the crib. The one time I tried to let him alone a few minutes he flipped out of the crib onto the carpet. it was so scary.

      He’s now a toddler, he doesn’t do any talking yet, and i’m not sure how much he understands, but he’s so dependent on me being there for him to go to sleep. However do I change these habits..

      thanks so much, wish I had started reading sooner but i was too tired to read…



    2. Eileen Henry, what would you suggest for a 9-month old who is still nursed to sleep for naps? We’ve finally night-weaned (fingers crossed), but nursing is still my last step at bedtime before I put him in crib then shut off light. However, I’m still nursing to sleep for both naps. Mostly out of convenience. And in a selfish way, I enjoy it! And he goes down super fast; I’m just not ready for the crying/sadness that will come. However, I realize for every nap I do this it will become harder and harder for him to learn to nap without nursing. Thoughts? How long normally until a baby of this age would start to fall asleep on his own for naps?

  3. I have a ten week old. 1) when can he start to understand me when I tell him the routine? He wakes up once or twice during each nap. I have to get him out of the swing; I rock him til he falls back asleep and put him back in swing. 2. I have calm music playing on low in the background as well as a sound machine. Is the music helping him to sleep or bothering him?

    1. The approach I recommend is centered around encouraging our babies to be active participants in a relationship with us — aware and present. Swings and rocking actually discourage awareness, because they have a sedating effect. As my mentor Magda Gerber noted, rocking and swinging babies puts them into an altered state of consciousness. The baby is passive to the parent’s actions, rather than connected and involved. So, these two kinds of approaches do not marry well. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Magda Gerber’s books, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect and Your Self-Confident Baby.

  4. Jessica Isles says:

    Yes the three P’s sound so sensible and sometimes I managed them when my children were smaller. My only concern with how we approach sleeping and leaving our infants is that SIDS babies most often die alone and new recommendations say to be/sleep in the same room for at least the first six months. Janet perhaps you know more about the new guidelines?

    1. Hi Jessica! Yes, the most recent guidelines encourage parents to keep the baby in the same room with them for the first 6-12 months, while strongly discouraging bed sharing.

  5. Hi Janet,
    I could use some advice on my sons nap. He’s 22 months and used to take 2-3 hour naps each day in the afternoon with no problem. The last 2 weeks we can’t get him to sleep. Bed time is no problem but naps don’t exist here anymore. I believe he is too young to give up his naps, am I wrong? How do I get him back in the routine?

    1. Kelly,

      This is a classic age for nap resistance. A nap can seriously cut into the toddler’s work (play) schedule.

      Yes, I agree he is too young to give up naps. My number one indicator is that the mother knows the child still needs the nap. Mom know a sleepy, overtired toddler when she sees one and we see it at around 4-5 in the evening.

      All of the following recommendations are going with the assumption that he has been going down for all naps, sleepy but awake, on his own, in his room, 100% of the time for over 6 months – a year. If someone has been facilitating naps by lying down with him or putting him to sleep for nap, even some of the time, then I would make different recommendations.

      Drop the “nap” word and hold the time and space (when nap happens and where it happens) for rest/quiet time.

      Talk to him before and prepare him. This preparation is key and is discussed in greater depth in my book The Compassionate Sleep Solution: Calming the cry

      1. Do your usual routine before nap.
      2. Tell him it is time for rest/quiet time.
      3. Tuck him in and tell him you will see him after nap.
      If he once slept for 2-3 hours, start with holding this time to one hour.

      Hold firm on naps and naps will return. But it can take a week or more to get them back depending on how long he has been in resistance mode.

      Eileen Henry, Rie Associate
      Compassionate Sleep Solutions

  6. We were going on a great sleep path, settling to sleep quickly on her own, one night waking and decent length naps. Since about 6 1/2 months, she fusses when she goes down for a nap, sleep for only one sleep cycle and has been waking multiple times a night. She’s 8 months now and I can’t seem to work out what changed to cause this!

  7. We were going on a great sleep path, settling to sleep quickly on her own, one night waking and decent length naps. Since about 6 1/2 months, she fusses when she goes down for a nap, sleep for only one sleep cycle and has been waking multiple times a night. She’s 8 months now and I can’t seem to work out what changed to cause this!

  8. My little guy is 13 weeks and we have always struggled a bit with sleep. At around 1 month he was incredibly difficult to get to sleep but was diagnosed with reflux. Once he had been on medication for a couple weeks he was much more inclined to go to sleep. In fact, getting him to sleep is the easy part. We have a great bedtime routine then I rock him to sleep and it only takes a few minutes. He wakes every two to four hours at night and only sleeps for 30 minutes at a time during the day. He only averages 11-13 total hours of sleep per day with 10 of those being at night. The occupational therapist we saw said that might just be normal for him but it has always concerned me. He eats every 2 hours during the day so it’s not surprising he wakes so often to eat at night. He was also just a boy who never wanted to be apart from me despite my best efforts using my rie training. I know that his reflux has caused me to stray from rie in the sleep department and i want yo get back on track. I want to disassociate his external sleep associations (pacifier and rocking) but at what age do I do this? At what age do I start putting him back to sleep without feeding every 2 hours? I’m hoping learning to self soothe will help extend his naps.

  9. My baby has given me sleepless nights for almost a year. It is very difficult to set a schedule for them. Thank God now I can sleep.. It was very difficult task to set a proper bedtime routine.

  10. My daughter is 6 months and screams herself purple when we put her down for a nap, or to sleep without me lying beside her. She started sleeping through the night (10hrs straight) at 11 weeks and this continued to about 5 months. The last month has been her waking to feed several times a night and not falling asleep unless I am lying with her. We’ve tried for hours (yes hours!) to soothe her to sleep, picking her up, comforting her and putting her back, gently stroking her, patting her bum etc. These days the second she hits the mattress she screams – no graduation into a full force screaming fit, straight to it. Please help me! What I am doing that’s not helping her?

  11. No matter how consistent the routine, my child fights sleep and going to bed for hours at least 4 nights out of the week. His diet isn’t sugary. It’s quiet in his room. I try story time and he doesn’t want to sit still and relax. If I’m out of sight or when someone other than myself is watching him, he goes right to bed/sleep. He’s 2 and it seems like he’s allergic to sleep when I’m around. We do learning activities, chores and play all day. I just don’t know what I’m missing..

  12. I would love to know what were the mini steps you took to get there. Also what to do when baby isn’t adjusting to the new changes yet. I’m sorry if these are discussed in the book, I’m waiting to receive mine.

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