Sleepy cues to incorporate into baby’s bedtime routine

A sleepy cue is simply something your baby associates with going to sleep. Rocking, feeding, bouncing, or patting are lovely sleep associations if they’re working for everyone. They help to create a positive sleep environment that encourages your baby to relax and to view bedtime as a warm, loving, and comforting experience.

The majority of babies naturally and instinctively need support to go to sleep, but the problem can arise when you only have one or two sleep cues for your baby to depend on. What that usually means is that settling bub to sleep falls on one person. That person is probably you, right?

For that reason, you might consider incorporating some additional sleep cues so that your partner or another trusted caregiver can put your baby to bed sometimes.

For instance, if you breastfeed your baby to sleep every night, you could add in a comforter (for babies over 8 months old) along with some relaxing music, and rocking in a rocking chair. Having these additional settling cues means that, in time, your partner could settle your bub easier without the need for you to breastfeed.

The other benefit of having additional sleepy cues is to reinforce the difference between day sleep and night sleep. As your baby’s circadian rhythm (their body’s internal clock) establishes, knowing that daytime is for playing and naps, while nights are dark and for longer sleep periods, takes time to learn and become familiar with for infants.

Sleepy cues to incorporate into your baby’s bedtime routine

Choose one from the list below or as many as you like, as long as it’s practical and realistic for your family. You might have other ideas you’d like to experiment with. You can adapt your sleep cues and bedtime routine as your baby grows, so being flexible and putting in the effort now will pay off later as well. 

Layering in sleep associations is easy, but will take at least three weeks for them to become effective settling tools. It’s not something that just happens as soon as you start to implement these strategies. In other words, each cue needs to be ‘conditioned’ to become a sleep association and will need to be used every evening before bed.

1. Lighting

To boost melatonin (the sleepy hormone) production in the evening, it’s a good idea to close the blinds/curtains in the house at least an hour before bedtime. This signals to the brain that it’s night time and that sleep is coming. 

2. Relaxing music

Sound cues, such as gentle lullaby music, could be used as part of the bedtime wind-down routine, starting even from when you close the blinds. It helps the whole family to calm down, so choose something you all enjoy. You might prefer to stop playing it once you’re settling your baby to sleep and replace it with white noise. Either option will need to be played all night long, so that when your baby wakes, they will recognise it as a sleep cue and feel comforted by it.

3. Scent cues

If your baby is usually drowsy after a bath, it can work well for some families to have a quiet play before the bath, and then move straight to the bedroom to settle them to sleep. An additional sleep cue is scent, such as pure lavender oil which is known to have a calming effect on babies. You could use a bath wash containing essential oils that is free from soaps and anything artificial, or use a baby-safe calming oil in a diffuser in the house.

4. Baby massage

Adding in some gentle touch to the wind-down part of the day is a lovely, reassuring opportunity to connect and feel close after a busy day for you both. Touch is soothing, reduces stress hormones, and releases the ‘feel good’ hormones. Choose a natural baby moisturiser or massage oil. If your baby resists a massage, or finds it too stimulating, you could have some skin-to-skin cuddles while you stroke your baby’s back instead.

5. Transitional objects

From about 8 months of age, a transitional object can be introduced. It is a comfort object that your baby can learn to associate with you. In order for that to happen, it’s important to include it in your everyday activities with your baby, such as feeding, cuddling, and playing. Avoid washing the comforter because part of the point of it is to have your scent on it. Don’t forget to have more than one in case it goes missing!

6. Sleepy phrase

Choose a special phrase or word to use each time you put your bub to bed. Eventually as your baby grows, you will be able to wean them off some of the other sleep cues, and continue using your sleepy phrase and a cuddle. So, choose something that you can imagine saying for the next couple of years or so. For example, you might not want it to be a lengthy song. It could be as short and sweet as ‘sleepy time, beautiful baby. I love you’ or ‘night night’ and blow a kiss.

7. Story time

Snuggle together for a story before or after the bedtime milk feed. You might like to keep a selection of books in the bedroom that are aimed at bedtime, rather than ones that are stimulating and fun. Of course this nightly ritual is not only wonderful for connection, closeness, and winding down, but will help create a lifelong love of reading.

8. Wrapping or sleep bags

Finally, once it’s time to put your baby to bed, swaddling for newborns (up until they start rolling) or a sleeping bag for older babies not only makes them feel snug and secure, but creates yet another sleep signal that it’s bedtime.

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