The Benefits of Bedtime Routines for Preschoolers and their Families
Bedtime routines promote high-quality sleep experiences for young children and help them fall asleep faster and sleep longer.
Bedtime routines help manage sleep problems and bedtime struggles.
The benefits of bedtime routines for promoting preschoolers’ sleep make establishing and protecting them worthwhile.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that preschoolers sleep for 10 to 13 hours daily to maximize their health, well-being, and development. Research suggests that bedtime routines promote high-quality sleep experiences. In this article, we discuss the benefits of bedtime routines for preschool-aged children’s sleep and provide suggestions for implementing and sustaining young children’s bedtime routines.
Features of Bedtime Routines
Family routines around sleep, commonly known as bedtime routines, can benefit preschoolers and their families. Mindell, Li, Sadeh, Kwon, and Goh (2015) described bedtime routines as “parents engaging their child in the same activities in the same order on a nightly basis prior to turning out the lights” (p. 717). Families’ reports of their children’s bedtime routines typically include hygiene activities, physical displays of affection, talking, singing, prayer, and story time. Bedtime routines provide structure and offer consistency in the context of family life, and these parenting practices promote young children’s sleep. Sleep is critical for children’s overall development, children’s future well-being in adulthood, parent-child interactions, and family health (Bathory & Tomopoulos, 2016).
Bedtime Routines Increase Number of Hours Children Sleep
Young children with bedtime routines tend to fall asleep faster and sleep longer. Research suggests that children with bedtime routines have shorter sleep-onset latency. Hunter (2004) conducted an experiment with a group of 20 children, aged 18 months to 6 years. The children were selected for the study because they resisted going to sleep for at least 15 minutes or longer. There were 12 children in the experimental group who participated in positive bedtime routines. Their parents chose four to six pleasant bedtime activities to be completed with them each night. The positive bedtime routines involved a parent helping the child use the bathroom, brush his or her teeth, and put on pajamas; this could be followed by the parent reading a story, saying prayers, and/or giving goodnight kisses and hugs, and ended with the parent leaving the room and turning off the lights. Parents also were asked to positively reinforce their children after each bedtime activity. The research found that, compared to the control group of children who did not participate in this bedtime routine, children with routines took less time to fall asleep.
Multiple studies also suggest that children with bedtime routines have longer durations of nighttime sleep. Mindell and colleagues (2015) examined data from mothers of infants to 5-year-olds. The mothers filled out sleep questionnaires about their child’s sleep patterns and behaviors. The participating families were predominantly middle income or affluent. The researchers’ analyses of the data suggested positive associations between bedtime routines and longer periods of nighttime sleep. Shorter sleep onset and awakenings during sleep also were found.
In another study, Mindell, Meltzer, Carskadon, and Chervin (2009) examined 1473 children’s sleep patterns and hygiene using data derived from a National Sleep Foundation poll. Children ranged in age from birth to 11 years. Random telephone sampling was used, and the participants were primarily White (89%) and middle income (median household income was $57,500). Mindell and colleagues (2009) reported that having bedtime routines was associated with a 30-minute increase in sleep duration.
Bedtime Routines Reduce Sleep Related Struggles
Bedtime routines help manage sleep problems and bedtime struggles. In one study, 25% of parents who had children younger than 5 years old found that sleep problems were very prevalent in their young children’s sleep patterns (Bathory & Tomopoulos, 2016). Sleep-related problems such as sleepwalking, night terrors, and sleep awakenings all happen during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. According to Bathory and Tomopoulos, consistent bedtime routines and healthy sleep hygiene practices are techniques that can help manage NREM disruptions and other sleep-related struggles.
In addition, several researchers have found that bedtime routines counteract bedtime behaviors that adversely affect sleep quality (Burke, Kuhn, & Peterson, 2004; Mindell, Li, Sadeh, Kwon, & Goh, 2015). In fact, studies have found that bedtime routines are associated with increased bedtime compliance and decreased behavior problems at bedtime. Burke and colleagues (2004) investigated whether reading a storybook with social themes before bedtime would help improve the negative bedtime behaviors of young children between the ages of 2 and 7 years. Some of those behaviors included tantrums, destruction of belongings, hitting, kicking, crying, screaming, fighting, not sleeping without parents present, and leaving the bedroom after being put to bed. The results indicated up to a 96% reduction rate of problematic bedtime behavior as a result of the treatment. Particularly, it was associated with a reduction of the number of destructive behaviors that occurred during bedtime routines.
Hunter (2004) also found that having a positive bedtime routine helped reduce bedtime struggles. In this study, children often resisted and avoided going to bed. If the child started to throw a tantrum during the bedtime routine, the parents were instructed to leave him or her alone for 5-10 minutes and then continue the routine where it left off. With positive activities and a consistent routine the researcher found a significant increase in young children’s bedtime compliance.
Helping Families Maintain Routines
Most preschoolers have regular bedtime routines. However, families vary in how consistently they adhere to them. There are several variables that can interfere with keeping a consistent positive bedtime routine. Bedtime routines can be interrupted by work obligations, school schedules, pending transitions, and unexpected family crises. An exploratory research study conducted at Central Michigan University used in-depth interviewing to examine the bedtime routines of 10 families with preschoolers. The study suggested that most parents struggled with keeping a consistent bedtime routine because of daily interferences. Sibling interruptions, extracurricular activities, and parental preoccupations were all found to be challenges that interfered with families having a consistent bedtime routine for their preschoolers. Because of these interferences, bedtime routines were rushed, shortened, and/or inconsistently followed.
Families may be able to counteract challenges with maintaining bedtime routines by protecting this special time and avoiding activities that might interfere with them. We recommend that families use the help of family members or other caregivers to maintain consistent bedtime routines. They can involve additional family members to help when time is short or energy levels are low. We also recommend that families plan for transitions, such as starting kindergarten, in advance and gradually adjust bedtime routines in preparation for those. Doing so limits abrupt interruptions to bedtime routines, which are difficult for young children to accept. We further suggest that families assess and revise bedtime routines as young children grow and in response to their development needs. For instance, preschoolers commonly experience nightmares and sleep terrors and may have trouble falling asleep. Families can make subtle changes to bedtime routines to address such developmental issues. Last, we recommend setting children up for restful sleep by making sure their bedtime routines are interesting, positive, calming, and interactive. A bedtime routine embedded in a close, warm family environment promotes a sense of security and, consequently, restful sleep among preschoolers.
Much of the research presented in this article focused on middle-income, White families’ practices and norms. So, these findings should be interpreted and applied with caution. Bedtime routines vary considerably across cultures and family settings. Children’s sleep behavior is influenced by cultural expectations, practices, and values; the time and attention given to bedtime routines spans a wide continuum. Family Science professionals should help generate and disseminate more knowledge of the bedtime routines of families with diverse lifestyles and cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, and social-class backgrounds to better support preschoolers’ sleep.
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