Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Best Bedtime Routine for Babies - Complete Guide

The drive to sleep is biological, the way we sleep is learned.  The purpose of a bedtime routine is to help cue your baby that it’s winding down time and sleep is coming.  Ideally, it’s a specific sequence of actions that are consistent night after night. This makes it easy for your baby to understand what’s coming up and get ready to make the transition from wakefulness into sleep. 

What is a Good Bedtime Routine? 

A good bedtime routine has specific steps that are reproducible night to night, caregiver to caregiver.  It should all take place in the room your baby is going to sleep.  Once you go in that room don’t come back out to say good night to everyone.  Do that at the beginning. You want to set the stage for sleep.  Dim the lights, play a lullaby that is relaxing.  Studies show that music can help a person fall asleep more easily. One study showed that listening to relaxing music before a nap helped improve the overall amount of nap time and ease of falling asleep for young women. (Cordi et al)  From when you come into the room to when you put your baby down in the crib, this time doesn’t need to be more than 30 minutes.  I’ll review bedtime routines by age further in the article. 

Should a Bath Be Part of the Routine?

In the newborn stage, 0-3 months, a bath could be helpful to your baby.  In this stage, it could mimic the feeling of being in the womb.  Scientifically the benefit is that the bath raises your body temperature.  Then your body distributes that heat to your hands and feet to “dump the heat.”  This ultimately drops your body temperature which helps facilitate sleep onset.  (Harding et al)  So it’s not that she’s all warm that helps her sleep, it’s the cooling effect that follows which helps initiate light sleep faster. This is definitely a benefit in the newborn stage.  What I’ve found after 4 months of age though the bath is a lot of fun!  It can actually be stimulating for many children rather than soothing.  

I don’t think you need to offer a bath every night for the following reasons:

  1. If you’re running late, I want you to get your baby to bed asap.  If you HAVE to do a bath, that will be more work and push bedtime later which increases your chance of night waking. 
  2. In colder climates, a daily bath will dry out your baby’s skin.
  3. Is it really that soothing? 

It’s not to say that you can’t offer a bath every night if you feel like it’s working for you.  I just don’t think of it as part of the bedtime routine.  For my clients, a bath is something that happens maybe daily, maybe every other day, before the bedtime routine starts. 

When to start a baby bedtime routine?

I encourage parents to start a bedtime routine as early as 4 weeks of age.  It’s a very short routine at this age. 

Baby Bedtime Routine for 3 Months and Younger

Newborns have weak sleep regulation systems.  Light/dark exposure can help entrain that system to develop more quickly.  Bedtimes at this age often fall around 9 pm, after the witching period. Visit the 2 Month Old Sleep Schedule blog here.  You’ll start cueing her that it’s sleeping time.  Simple set up actions might be:

  • Come into the nursery 
  • Dim the lights
  • Play a lullaby
  • Tell baby “its sleeping time”
  • Change her diaper and into nighttime pajamas
  • Swaddle
  • Help baby fall asleep with your approach - Calm but Awake Method, Rocking Rock or feed to sleep

From entering the nursery to when you go to help her to fall asleep might be 5-10 minutes in length.  You can start doing this for naps as well. 

Bedtime Routine for babies 4 -11 Months 

Babies this age are far more aware of their world.  Their bedtime is based on when they woke up from their last nap and usually falls between 6 pm to 7:30 pm depending on the number of naps they are on.  This bedtime routine is likely 5-15 minutes in length from the time you come into the room and have your baby ready to sleep. 

  • Come into the nursery 
  • Dim the lights
  • Play a lullaby
  • Tell baby “its sleeping time”
  • Change her diaper and into night time pajamas - put on sleep sack
  • Sit in a chair and read 1-2 board books or if baby tries to eat the book, sing a lullaby 
  • Purpose of this is come closure time with parent in the sleep space
  • Place into crib awake if an independent sleeper or how ever you are helping 
  • For independent sleepers on average it takes about 5-15 minutes for them to fall asleep on their own once in the crib 

Bedtime Routine for babies 12 Months to 24 Months  

Babies this age are far wanting to exert more and more independence on their world.  They will be more involved in the bedtime routine. Their bedtime is based on when they woke up from their last nap and usually falls between 6 pm to 7:30 pm depending on the number of naps they are on.  This bedtime routine is likely 15- 25 minutes in length from the time you come into the room and have your baby ready to sleep. 

  • Come into the nursery 
  • Dim the lights
  • Play a lullaby
  • Tell baby “its sleeping time”
  • Change her diaper and into night time pajamas - put on the sleep sack
  • Sit in a chair and read 1-2 board books or if baby tries to eat the book, sing a lullaby 
  • Purpose of this is come closure time with parent in the sleep space
  • Place into crib awake if an independent sleeper or however you are helping 
  • For independent sleepers on average, it takes about 5-15 minutes for them to fall asleep on their own once in the crib 

Is Your Baby Resisting Your Bedtime Routine? 

It’s not uncommon that what was working, seems to stop working.  I see this commonly at 4 months, associated with the 4 month sleep regression, and again around 7-8 months. This is when you might have to ask yourself if I’m putting my baby down “drowsy but awake.”  In the Helping Babies Sleep Method that I teach I review why “drowsy but awake” has set us all up to fail.  If you’re making your baby drowsy, you’re doing the work of relaxing your baby which is the skill a person needs to be an independent sleeper  - not reliant on someone or something external.  This blog posts reviews this concept.  In addition, when a baby goes through a “sleep regression” she may resist bedtime.  Sleep regressions are associated with distraction.  Your baby is distracted by a feeling or thought and can’t relax into sleep in the same way she used to. You can review sleep regressions here. 

In Summary,

Your bedtime routine doesn’t need to be extremely long or complex.  It’s a simple set of actions repeatable each night by different caregivers.  The goal is to set the stage for sleep and prepare her for the night. 


References used in this article:

Cordi M et al. 2019 Effects of Relaxing Music on Healthy Sleep  Sci Rep. 2019; 9: 9079.

Harding, E et al. 2020.  Sleep and thermoregulation. Current Opinion in Physiology. Volume 15, June 2020, Pages 7-13


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