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I think most parents agree that it's helpful to follow some fixed ritual when putting a child to bed.
What elements in such rituals are particularly useful, and what should be avoided?

There are several other questions about this already, but those are meant specifically for one particular situation. Let's make this question a general set/toolbox of suggestions that we can refer to in the future!

This is not a question that has a single correct answer, so it should be a community wiki.
Please provide exactly one suggestion per answer!
Please upvote and downvote answers according to your experience.

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21 Answers 21

Read a bedtime story.

A bedtime story winds him down and can be useful for talking through some special good or bad events/behaviours of the day.

Our toddler would just rip the pages out if we tried now :-) but soon we want to begin this. I'd place it after the bathroom, just before lights out. I think I'd prefer to put him in his bed after reading, to emphasize that the bed is only for sleeping. I don't want to teach him that it's okay to be awake and play in the bed; that's for outside the bed only.

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Just so you know, our child has a loft bed now, but used to have a regular bed. We used to read in bed, but now the loft bed makes that difficult. We had much better success at bedtime when we used to read the book in bed, so I'd recommend doing so. –  Justin Standard Apr 4 '11 at 20:20
    
Thanks! I guess one must try both and see what works best! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 5 '11 at 5:58
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Same time every day.

Whatever ritual the parents choose, it should start at the same time every day. It might take longer to complete on some days, but a fixed starting time helps create a solid routine.

This starting time should be respected whenever possible, also on evenings when special events are happening (parties, guests visit, etc.).

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Putting toys away.

This is one neat thing we've built into our bedtime routine. Even at 12 months of age, our child already knew that the toys are meant to be put away at the end of the day. The toys sleep in bins at night, and the bins have their own place as well.

By starting this particular habit very early, we've managed to get a very tidy living room with very little effort. And it's so much more relaxing when I'm not stepping on or around toys all night :-)

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Love it! I am going to start this! –  Amy Patterson Apr 4 '11 at 21:36
    
I have a 6mo, and I actually find the presence of toys all over the floor very comforting for some reason. Maybe that will change once she's older! –  tenpn Apr 5 '11 at 8:34
    
We store the toys in shallow bins that "sleep" under the living room sofa, and a few bigger toys are parked next to the sofa. So we also still see the toys, but we don't have to watch our step. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 5 '11 at 11:24
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Give The Child A Bath

Bath time prior to bedtime is an important part of the ritual, ensuring your child can feel clean and comfortable as they settle down to sleep.

If they play in the bath, that's OK as they'll get rid of any excess energy before the next part of the bedtime ritual. If the bath calms them down, that's OK too (since the whole point of bedtime is to calm down and get to sleep).

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Things that help relax and calm children before bed help with the winding down process. Lavender in the bath is good too. –  nGinius Apr 4 '11 at 23:27
    
Baths seem to fire our daughter up. She has LOTS of fun in there, and afterwards runs around the house (usually still wet and nude). Takes us a while to calm her down. –  a different ben Jan 15 at 5:22
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Brushing Teeth

If you want your toddler to grow up having good dental hygiene, its best to cement the habit now. Therefore, as soon as they have teeth to brush, you should include brushing teeth in the bedtime routine.

What works for us best is after bath, but before books. Every family will have to determine where teeth brushing fits into their evening routine, but whenever it fits in, it should be there.

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Talk about the day

One part of our evening routine is talk about our days:
We started with that habit at the earliest days. We told our baby than what he did all day long. Later we could ask specifically for some events that he remembered. (E.g. "Who did we visit today?" — "Grandma." — "Yes right...".)

By now we established a routine that he and I take turns who starts talking about the day. Maybe he tells me about his day in the kinder garden, what he played with his friends and what he did in the afternoon. Then I tell about my work. In case he has some questions, we may discuss them as well. Finally we tell each other what we would like to dream about.

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.......Love it! –  Justin Standard Apr 7 '11 at 19:58
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Let the kid wind down. Especially when they can't talk yet. Tell them about you're own day and explain/talk to him about his day. If he went to the zoo talk about the animals he likes. If he went to his grantparent ask him if he liked that. Tell him a bit about what he's going to do tomorrow. –  Barfieldmv Apr 26 '11 at 20:20
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Same order every day.

This should really be a no-brainer. The steps that the bedtime ritual consists of should be done in the same order every day.

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100% agree on that. The routine is so important. –  Ray Booysen Oct 25 '12 at 21:25
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No bottles in bed.

We have had a firm rule in our house that bottles and sippy cups are NEVER allowed in their cribs. I know too many kids who have to have a bottle of milk in order to fall asleep at night.

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Juice will rot teeth. Milk can go sour. Water doesn't help with toilet training later. –  nGinius Apr 4 '11 at 23:23
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Avoid Stimulai When Kids Are In Bed

This may sound like a no brainer, but when you tuck your kids in and turn out the light try to avoid any kind of stimulai thereafter, such as singing lullabies, touching them, talking to them, etc. This will only prolong the sleep process.

When my children would have trouble going down, or call out to us in the middle of the night, I would walk into their room and simply stand there in the dark near the bed. This gave them comfort, knowing that I was there. If they whined, reached out for a hug, asked me a question or tried to engage me in conversation, I would not respond - because doing so would teach them that bedtime was a time for something other than sleeping. Eventually they began to realize that their efforts were futile, and they began to fall asleep faster, with less intervention from me.

Conversely, when my wife would go into the room, she would sit on the bed, give back rubs. sing a lullaby, talk to them, try to soothe them, etc. And as soon as she would stop and try to leave, they would start whining again. She would spend an average of an hour or more a night doing this, and sometimes have to repeat the process, whereas I spent 15 to 20 minutes - tops. I told her my system, but she didn't think it felt right. And on some level, I would agree - I wanted to comfort my child, but I knew where that would lead. All said and done, on the nights when I put the kids to bed, my system got the children to go down faster and stay down, whereas my wife's system resulted in long wind-downs and more frequent wake-ups.

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tough love; but effective. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 21 '11 at 9:08
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+1, I've been doing the same thing, now when the kids have to be in bed but don't want to sleep the ask for Mom and not me. –  MichaelF Apr 24 '11 at 20:11
    
My wife was always like, "How did you DO that?!?" when I would come back downstairs in 10-15 minutes, vs. her spending an hour or more trying to soothe them to sleep. –  Eric Sokolsky Apr 26 '11 at 14:57
    
I'm slowly getting this to work. My wife is like yours @EricSokolsky, she talks to our child, gets involved, etc. I just grunt, say as little as possible, and sometimes just lie on the floor next to the cot. –  a different ben Jan 15 at 5:25
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Keeping the bedroom for sleeping.

Bedrooms are for beds and beds are for sleeping in. All that we keep in our boys bedroom are their beds and clothes. I plan to keep it that way, as much as possible, as they get older. Our goal is that once they go into their room it is for personal quiet time and sleeping. Yes it means that their toys are all over the house but it keeps us motivated to sort through them and get rid of the ones they don't need any more.

By doing this we keep their room a place of calm and quiet in hopes that they can get the quality rest that they need as they grow.

Update

My boys are now almost 4 years old and things have gotten a bit more muddled. I still keep the toys out of the room but the darn things keep sneaking in there. I do keep all their books in there still and we read in there on a regular basis. I also have a bookbag in there devoted to their library books. I have added a few night lights and pillow pets to help with them being scared of the dark in the middle of the night. We use their room for timeouts during the day when they need to calm down. I still try to keep it a place of peace and quiet as much as possible.

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We do this too and also have books. –  nGinius Apr 4 '11 at 23:27
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Plus, the living room becomes the family room where all activities take place. Easier to keep an eye on the kids while doing chores :) –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 5 '11 at 6:01
    
Do the kids that go to school have their own place to study? If not, how can they concentrate? –  Konerak Jun 7 '11 at 17:54
    
@Konerak So far the kids are only a year old (twins) so not yet. Our plan is that by that point we will have invested in an addition with an office/library. In it will will have desks/study space for each of us. I feel it is important that even though we have a small house each person needs their own personal space. For now though we are just working on not tripping over the mega blocks that litter our living room floor. :) –  Amy Patterson Jun 8 '11 at 13:37
    
Hehe ok. We're thinking about what to put in which room, but will need a few more rooms if each kid gets a bed-only bedroom... I myself 'd rather have 1 big room (bed+desk) than 2 small rooms, but we're not there yet either! –  Konerak Jun 8 '11 at 13:53
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Try to keep it simple and fairly quick. The whole evening should not be consumed by the bedtime routine. We have a set time that we aim for, sometimes we head upstairs a little earlier or later depending on the day. We do similar things in a similar order so our children know what to expect. Sometimes we read a chapter in a book or have them choose a picture book, sometimes we talk about our day, say our prayers, etc. We have a sleepy clock that turns a different color for bedtime and plays a story or music. We turn on the clock, tuck them in, then we say goodnight and close the door. Keep it simple and be flexible, but consistent!

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...but don't rush it. In our family, the routine is meant for winding down, so it's okay to spend maybe 15 on it. But not an hour! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 9 '11 at 17:46
    
Where would one get such a clock? –  Sverre Rabbelier Nov 16 '11 at 8:44
    
I am also curious about the clock. Anybody? –  Rhea Jan 6 at 7:14
    
In a similar way I've been using an hourglass for the bath, so it doesn't go on and on. When the sand runs out it's obvious, and easy to say 'oh, time's up!'. –  a different ben Jan 15 at 5:29
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Include time off as part of bedtime

One of the most effective tools my parents used with us when growing up, especially as we were entering the teenage years, was a 30 minute "self time" or "meditation time" added before the "lights out" "must be asleep now" bed time. This was time that I we were expected to spend in bed, without TV/video-games or talking to each other (books or journal writing were ok), but not expected to be asleep or remain completely quiet during.

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This goes against the bed is for sleeping only stream, but we always did this as kids :) –  Konerak Jun 7 '11 at 17:56
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Don't watch an exciting/thrilling/scary movie before bedtime

It's sometimes hard to gauge which movie would keep the children up, but in our experience, if it gets them excited enough to jump about when they're watching it, best have some wind-down time before bedtime.

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Even we parents shouldn't be staring at a bright screen right before going to bed. Late tv, or that last-minute e-mail? iPhone-surfing in bed? Not helpful for inducing sleep... –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 4 '11 at 11:56
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Also, you may not want to show your young children scary movies at all. –  Justin Standard Apr 4 '11 at 20:21
    
If, as a parent, you have to be looking at a computer screen during the evening, consider installing f.lux –  Konerak Jun 7 '11 at 17:57
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Don't engage in any activity after they are in bed

I started this when my son was 6 months. If he would not sleep easily, we just used to turn out the lights and lie there as if we were asleep. Now he know (10 mo) that lights out means time to sleep and it doesn't take more than 15 mins of silence :)

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It depends on your child, your child's age, and your goals. If your goal is to get your child to lie down and go to sleep without fuss, then a daily ritual is important and the right one is the one that works. If your child is not fussy about going to bed, this becomes less important.

Another important part of going to bed is it's something where the same family members tend to be involved every day. It's a great time to do stuff like reading, talking about the day, or reinforcing earlier discussions. We use it for reading and music. I read to our son, and am starting to have him read. My wife sings and works on his ear training.

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Your mention of "ear training" made me curious. I came upon this zumpoems.com/off-limits/ear-training-for-children-ages-3-to-6. Very cool! My child has always been a very auditory learner so I will have to try that out. –  Rhea Jan 6 at 7:12
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Consider trying a musical routine. We use songs for each step before bedtime. For example, whistle while you work is for cleanup and ants in my pants for changing into pajamas. The playlist plays in the same order and each chore is done to a calmer song than the one before it. It gives a time limit for everything which helps to avoid stalling and depicts a routine and order that is the same every night which helps cue their brains into calming down before they even touch the bed. We pause the music for a story or two if they have been "on time" with the music and then calming lullabies play for about 40 minutes after that. It helps to make the routine fun, regular and predictable and also calming. I have more examples and ideas on my website if you wish for more info. http://pinchxeverything.blogspot.com/2012/07/routines-get-up-and-go-and-bedtime.html#!/2012/07/routines-get-up-and-go-and-bedtime.html We also use a similar routine for getting up and getting going in the morning.

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Tell them you love them and (possibly) hug them

I was surprised that noone suggested that.

Don't do it too late in the ritual, because of the no stimulai rule. A good place would be probably after tell me about your day.

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Give then choices!

We follow the "Love and Logic" parenting technique (www.loveandlogic.com, and LOVE it) which speaks about giving kids a much control as possible so that parents can take control when needed…i.e. I have given you many choices and now it is my turn to make a choice.

Along these lines, one of the things that has worked well with our three year-old is to give her choices of how they want their room…like "would you like your light on or off when I leave?", "would you like me to leave the door open or closed?". Even silly things like asking which pillows she wants in her crib have become part of our ritual.

Ultimately keep to a routine.

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Soft music or white noise promotes relaxation and sleep.

Whether it's the steady hum of a humidifier motor or a white noise generating machine the continuous monotonous sound blocks other unexpected or startling noises.

It also stimulates prenatal "memory" of the cozy comfort of mom's heart beating or blood swishing by in the womb.

When the light is switched off and the calming sounds begin, an auditory and visual "curtain" marks the transition from daytime activities to the inviting environment unique for sleeping.

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Changing into Pajamas

Just like a costume, pajamas vs. play clothes let them know they are switching roles.

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Skin Care

My child has eczema so we also have a lotion routine we do as part of our bedtime routine. I have her apply it now as part of her taking care of her body.

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