Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Should Your Bedtime Routine Include a Bath?

I remember being in the hospital, hours after my baby’s birth, giving him a bath and then trying to breastfeed.  It didn’t go well since he was so sleepy from the bath!  It is true that a bath will make a newborn sleepy.  The bath is similar to the soothing conditions the baby experienced in the womb. So in this post, I will discuss bedtime routines for babies.

Will a Bath Help your Baby Sleep?

After a bath, your body temperature drops a few degrees.  This drop in core temperature signals your body that it’s time for sleep.  For a little baby, 0-3 months, baths are very helpful as the sensation of the water is similar to the womb, the warmth is soothing and then the drop in core temperature after the bath signals the body it is time for sleep.   All good things.

Does this effect mean that a bath should be part of baby’s bedtime routines?

My answer:  Not necessarily

Here is why I don’t think a bath should be part of bedtime routines.

1.  A bath everyday can dry out a baby’s skin, especially during the winter months in cold climates.

2.  If a bath is part of the routine, on nights when you are running late, and baby is already overtired, you still have to bathe him.  Why would I want to keep a fussy baby up longer? I would prefer to get that baby to sleep.

3.  For newborns, there are many other ways to soothe a baby that offering a bath.  Swaddling, swinging, sssshing and bouncing are a few that come to mind and are much less effort, and easier on delicate skin, than a bath.

4.  While a bath may make a newborn sleepy, it can have the opposite effect with babies 4 months and older.  Often kids enjoy the bath so much it will stimulate them rather than calm them.

Should you remove the bath from your bedtime routine?

All this is not to say that you can’t bathe your baby at night.  You can, but it is all done before your bedtime routine, before your older baby is entering the tired zone.  Wouldn’t you want your 7 month old baby to be alert and able to enjoy the bath rather than fussy and cranky?  I had a client who told me that her baby always cried during the bath.  It was because baby was tired and ready for bed, rather than a bath.

A bedtime routine for a baby less than 12 months should be about 5-10 minutes in length.  Bedtime routines are all about consistency and setting up cues for baby that sleep is coming.

An example of a bedtime routine might look something like this:

1.  Observe that baby is decreasing her interest and engagement in her activities and that the appropriate time has elapsed since getting up from her last nap.  One of the most common parenting mistakes is picking a bedtime based on external factors not related to baby, such as when Dad comes home from work.  From my experience, the majority of parents with a baby in the 4-6 months age range who are having sleep issues, have a bedtime that is too late.  For this age group, between 6-7 pm to be asleep is appropriate.

2.  Tell baby that “its sleepy time”, and take her into the room where she sleeps for the night. Keep repeating your “key phrase” throughout the routine so she can learn what it means.

3.  Draw the curtains, dim the lights.  Set the stage for night-time.

4.  Play or sing a little lullaby as a cue.

5.  Change baby into pajamas and change diaper.

6. Create a sense of security. For babies less than 4 months I suggest swaddling.  For babies older than 4 months, I strongly recommend a sleep sack for warmth and security.

7.  Read one short book and have a “closure cuddle”.  That special time of quiet cuddling that marks the end of the day.

8.  Place baby in the crib, calm but awake.  “Calm but awake” is the perfect scenario where a baby would then soothe herself and drift off into sleep.  However, for many of us often we have to nurse, feed or a rock a baby into that “drowsy but awake” zone  and do the soothing for them.  If that is working for you, go with it.

What about nap time routine?

Nap time routine should be the same as the bedtime routine as it shows consistency and is easier for a baby to learn what to expect when actions are consistent with outcomes.  At nap time you probably wouldn’t change her into her pajamas but you would still swaddle or use a sleep sack.

What about white noise?

White noise is a great tool to use to block out distractions if you have a noisy household at bedtime.  It does not have to keep playing all night but can be helpful for 25 minutes at put down in households with toddlers running around or pots banging in the kitchen, creating noise that could rouse a baby who is about to drift off.  White noise will not prevent your baby from waking up at night or help her sleep through the night.

When should you start implementing a bedtime routine?

Creating the setting for bedtime by dimming the lights, decreasing the household volume and executing your bedtime routine is a great way to help baby distinguish between night and day. During the daytime, when you get your baby up, do a dramatic wake up.  Pronounce it morning in a cheery voice, open the curtains and create a distinction between night and day.  You can start doing all of this from day 1.

I have so much more to teach you about baby sleep. Come join my online class and community.

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