Sleep Well//

4 Secrets to a Calm Family Bedtime Routine

Research-backed techniques for stress-free evenings so you can all wake well-rested.

Courtesy of Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Africa Studio/Shutterstock

At the height of summer, no one wants to be reminded about going back to school time, certainly not kids. But this is actually the best time to establish bedtime routines that will prevent stress later. “Many parents find evenings the most stressful time of the day, and children report that’s when parents are most likely to shout at them,” says Lorraine Thomas, founder of the International Parent Coaching Academy, a global firm that delivers coaching and seminars to clients including Goldman Sachs and Disney, and author of books including The 7 Day Parent Coach and Super Coach Arty vs. The Shadow: Stress Management Tips for Children.

Good bedtime habits can be established in seven days if you do them calmly, confidently, and consistently,” Thomas tells Thrive. In a survey of 1,000 working parents, Thomas found that screens and stress are the biggest obstacles to a good night’s sleep. “But when parents make simple changes, nine out of 10 say it makes a significant difference,” she says, like more energy and increased resilience in kids.

“Can bedtimes be completely stress free? Of course not,” says Fiona Barwick, Ph.D., director of the Sleep & Circadian Health Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine’s Sleep Medicine Center. But if you start with clear and consistent bedtime routines early on — which can include baths, music, and stories — you can establish good habits. “Ages 0 to 6 is a critical period in our development when we’re absorbing information, so we’re going to replicate early behaviors unconsciously into adulthood,” Barwick tells Thrive. “Evening routines work the same way whether you’re 8 or 68, because we all fall asleep most easily when we feel safe, relaxed, and loved.” 

One of the challenges of establishing a family nighttime routine is that often parents get home from work and they’re wiped out, so they don’t even give themselves time to relax. But forfeiting a bedtime ritual could come at a cost. Encouraging kids to get high-quality sleep is not only important for their current vitality, but for the future. “Deep rest is nothing short of transformational,” says Thrive Global’s Sleep Editor-at-Large Shelly Ibach, the president and CEO of Sleep Number. Family bedtime routines is a subject close to her heart: “Helping future generations achieve quality sleep can and will change the world,” she says. “Excellent sleep is essential to a healthier and happier society, strengthening our connections with one another, and expanding the frontier of what’s possible.” 

And of course when parents lead the way, it pays off for the whole family. “One dad I worked with, a teacher, told me bedtimes were ‘part joy, part guerilla warfare,’” says Thomas. “Every evening in their house was a battle, but he was amazed that once he set the challenge of establishing an evening routine, things were much more calm — and fun.”

Here are four expert-backed steps to a successful bedtime for the whole family. 

1. Let your kids choose their favorite bedtime activities 

Involve your children in the decision-making so bedtime feels less like a struggle and more like a fun activity. Give them a (limited) choice in the process, too, recommends Thomas. Say: “Do you want to brush your teeth first or put on pajamas?” Get into the habit of saying “when” and “then” rather than “if you don’t … you can’t.” For example: “When you have brushed your teeth, then we can read bedtime stories.” 

Barwick advises making your child’s bedroom a secure, peaceful refuge and choosing three or four quiet, calming activities that kids and parents can both look forward to. One should be reading aloud, which promotes imagination and creativity, and a sense of connection between parent and child, says Barwick, who recommends the Llama Llama series by Anna Dewdney for reading aloud. “The mood during your bedtime routine should be, ‘The day is done. We can finally spend time together doing the things we all enjoy,’” says Barwick.

Rewards can also be used to cultivate positive behaviors, so if the kids are struggling a bit, you can give them an extra story or additional cuddle time or a special bath, Barwick says.

2. Create a “happy wall” in the bedroom

Scientific research shows that looking at a picture of a person we love or an experience we enjoyed replicates the same positive emotions in our brain as experiencing those things in person, says The Coaching Academy’s Thomas. Pictures, photos, and words on the wall provide a strong visual reinforcement of support and love, and help children fall asleep peacefully, she says. “It is also the first thing they’ll see in the morning to prepare them for the challenges of the day ahead. They know they are never alone.”

3. Help children develop their own inner sleep coach

Thomas suggests building visualisation into your child’s bedtime routine — it’s a useful tool that can help them practice relaxing before bed, but they can also employ the strategy to keep calm when managing challenging emotions throughout the day. “Ask them to close their eyes and visualize their favorite place. What can they see, touch, how do they feel?” she advises. Also valuable is to help kids develop their own inner sleep coach. “It can be anything: a cartoon character, a rainbow, a favorite toy, a football, something that makes them smile. What can they hear their sleep coach saying to them? It could be a few key relaxing words,” Thomas says. The key is that their coach is a tool of their own making, an inner resource that they can access anytime.   

4. Keep the bedroom screen-free

A Canadian study found that too much screen time may affect children’s brains and that limiting it, is beneficial to children’s well-being. That is especially true at bedtime, experts say. “Screens and devices within three feet of you, or your kids, in bed are a threat to a good night’s sleep,” says Barwick. Light, especially the blue light emitted by our tech gadgets, suppresses and delays the release of melatonin, our sleep inducing hormone, which starts to go up naturally two hours before our bedtime. Beyond that, “kids develop fears and pressures that can be exacerbated by what they’re exposed to in social media,” Barwick says, “and we fall asleep most easily when we feel comfortable and secure.”

Thomas advises buying an old-fashioned alarm clock for the bedroom. (“So when the alarm goes off, you check in with yourself instead of social media, and encourage children to do the same.”) She recommends setting up a “family charging station” where you all charge your phones and other screens outside the bedrooms. “It’s great for children to get into that habit and see their parents doing it too,” she says. Research shows that ensuring the hour before we close our eyes is screen-free will give us much better quality sleep, and the whole family will wake up feeling more energized.

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