Bedtime is arguably the most important rhythm of the day. A strong set of evening rituals set the stage for a smooth transition from a long day to a peaceful and restful sleep. Studies have shown that the most restorative hours of sleep (for both adults and children) occur before midnight. So how do we get our children to bed at the recommended 7 or 7:30pm bedtime ensuring that we as adults also have some time and breathing space to unwind and to connect with our partners?
Turn off the screens.
Study after study after study has shown that screens are detrimental to a good night’s sleep. I know many of you minimize your children’s screentime already but perhaps add in a family movie or an app hour here or there depending on your family values and the ages of your children. I urge you to not only pay attention to the amount of screen time you allow, but also to choose the timing wisely.
Eat dinner early. Like 5pm early.
Eating too close to bedtime can increase blood sugar and insulin, making it difficult to fall asleep. Dinner should ideally be eaten 3 hours before we go to bed. I realize for working parents this is exceptionally hard, but there are ways to try to minimize prep time. Meal planning, a slow cooker and/or homemade frozen meals can go a long way in helping facilitate an early dinner. Having dinner already made or prepped means that even if you get home at 6pm you can still have it on the table at 6:30.
Say goodnight to toys and playspaces.
Before or after dinner, set aside 10 minutes to say goodnight to toys and to put everything away together. This pack away time allows your children a fresh start in the morning and also signals that playtime is finished and bedtime is close at hand. Sing a song such as, “Once there was a little gnome, who said it’s time to tidy your home. Swish, swish, swish! Gather here and gather there. Put the toys away with care. Swish, swish, swish!”
Dim the lights.
Turning the lights down stimulates melatonin production in our bodies which helps to regulate our circadian clocks. Darkened rooms also dull the senses and allow us to turn “inward”, enabling us to let go of our external environment.
Create a bathing ritual.
If you have very young eaters you might want to have bathtime after dinner. On the other hand, sometimes it’s easier to bathe children while dinner is in the oven. This is up to you. Many people find giving their children a bath every night is a bit excessive (and exhausting) yet they can also see how water soothes the senses and creates a smooth transition to PJs and brushing teeth. Alternatively, you could try offering a warming footbath to your children in the winter or a simple trip to the bathroom to wipe faces and hands with a facecloth dipped in hot water and an essential oil. This may be the time you choose for everyone to brush their teeth as well.
Tell or read a story.
Light a candle and allow your child(ren) to choose a book or two to read aloud together. In our home each younger child chooses one book while the elder two usually have a chapter or two from a novel once the toddlers are tucked into bed. This might even be the time you choose to tell an oral story with props. Story time is unique to each family and very personal. It is most important that you keep each night’s sequence of events very similar (eg. not 3 books one night and none the next) and that the transition from bath/dinner to stories is as quick as you can make it. This is not the time to clean up dinner, send emails or pack lunches- this is your chance to keep the peace and calm flowing!
Head to bed, tuck them in and say a verse, blessing or sing a lullaby.
We used to give each child a “cuddle” before bed but with four children it was taking too long for both us and them! So we now tuck them each in, give them a kiss and say their bedtime verse. Juniper, who is three has just transitioned from having a pacifier to none so she needs a little more loving attention at bedtime. I began singing nursery rhymes to her to help her fall asleep and this is a gentle ritual that we use each night. This could also be a time to offer a short massage or some acupressure with lavender essential oil to relax their muscles and soothe their senses further.
Try to strike a balance between empathy, loving kindness and consistency.
Keep meals around the same time everyday, have a consistent rotation between baths, hand/face washing or footsoaks and stick to the same number of books every night so fewer negotiations take place. Turn out the light at the same time each night to help your child’s body clock get into its own rhythm.
All of this said, there are some times when it really is OK to let go of the rhythm and to follow your heart. For example, I might read an extra book or give an extra long cuddle to children who are sick, are going through big emotional changes or transitions or when I feel they need more “touch” than usual.
No family rhythm will ever be the same as any other’s- look at what your time constraints are, where you struggle and where you succeed and create a peaceful evening and bedtime rhythm that is unique to your family’s needs.