Once my newborn son tossed my original sleeping plan out the window, bedtime actually became relatively easy for us: sometime after dinnertime, I'd nurse him to sleep, and then we’d sleep and dreamfeed all night. After a few months, though, we started wanting him to spend at least part of the night in his own bed, so I started investigating the vast world of "expert opinions" on building proper baby and toddler sleep habits. Trying and disliking many of those sleep solutions was how I discovered that there were a few things I thought I had to do at bedtime, that I really didn't. A big chunk of that "expert advice" I dispensed with pretty quickly, because I knew it didn't feel right to me or for more my family. But many of the gentler sleep solutions sounded reasonable and legitimate, so I decided to give them a try.
Now, I'm not saying that any of the following are bad things to do, by any means. Clearly, they're working for a lot of families, which is why they've become such popular things to do at bedtime. But, like many things with parenting, I find that success at bedtime is more a matter of finding the specific routines and habits that work for our specific family, rather than following “expert” advice that doesn’t jive with our values or needs. Once I reminded myself of that undeniable fact, I was able to pick the sleepy-time suggestions that made sense to us, and ditch the ones that didn't.
The most important thing when it comes to bedtime, aside from providing a safe, comfortable place to sleep, is to pick something that works for everyone, stick with it for as long as it works for everybody, and adjust as soon as something isn't working. There's no need to feel like you have to do any of the following (or avoid any of the following, or do anything else that's not working for you and/or your child) just because "that's what it says in the book" or because you think it's what all the other parents do. If "you do you" is good enough during the day, it's good enough at night, too.
Give A Bath
I can easily see why a nightly bath is a great way to unwind for many people, of all ages, so I understand why it's often recommended part of many bedtime routines. But between drying out my son’s delicate skin, and not wanting to sacrifice the full hour or more that a bath entails for him every single evening, this just wasn't practical or useful for us.
Give A Massage
I spent a while learning official infant massage techniques in the hopes of using them at bedtime. Turns out, my son is super ticklish, so those motions would give him giggle fits that left him even more awake almost as often as they helped him relax and unwind.
Put My Kid Down "Sleepy But Awake"
This is a "very important thing," according to many of the sleep experts. To hear many of them tell it, if your baby does not master this particular thing, they will still be throwing bedtime tantrums on their wedding night. Nobody wants that, so I was very interested in trying it.
Unfortunately, that quickly became a replay of his earliest infant days, where he vehemently fought any efforts to sleep anywhere but on or next to me. The only way my son will sleep in his crib is if he is already asleep when he gets there, so if that's all he asks in exchange for a few tear-free hours to ourselves, I'm happy to nurse, rock, and sing him to sleep. He's still really little; I see no point in rushing him past the already-short "cuddle me to sleep" phase of life.
Have A Hardcore Sleep Training Regime
I am not categorically opposed to co-sleeping and bedsharing, so I didn’t see much need for many of the strict sleep training regimes out there. My child wants to sleep, he just doesn’t want to sleep alone. However, there was a brief moment there where I felt some kinda way about mixing crib-sleeping with co-sleeping, like it wasn’t “allowed” and I had to pick a side. I don’t, so we didn’t. The point is for everyone to get enough sleep to be healthy, not to pledge allegiance to some sleep tribe or another.
Play The “Perfect” Pre-Sleep Music
Because I briefly felt like we had to do things drastically differently in order to establish a “proper” bedtime routine, I also found myself trading the music my son and I like in the evenings for a digital lullabye station that literally made my soul roll her eyes. That lasted a day before I kicked it to the curb.
Ditch My Sleepydust Tools
Along with the “sleepy but not asleep” rule, a lot of the sleep experts encourage parents to eliminate what they call “sleep crutches.” Simple math won the day for me on this one, though: if I'm already not planning to do the “sleepy but awake” thing because it stresses us both out too much, why should I spend close to an hour hoping that the strength of our routine will carry him off to sleep, when I can put him in our woven wrap and nurse him to sleep in three minutes? When he's too big for that trick, we’ll figure out a new routine that works, which we'd have to do every time he grows and changes, anyway.
Stick With The Same Routine Indefinitely
Getting attached to all the recommendations briefly caused me to lose sight of something I learned from studying, teaching, and living with kids even before having my own: nothing about childhood is forever. Many of the sleep books send the message that if you don't train your baby to be a totally independent sleeper at the earliest possible opportunity, they will never, ever be able to get a healthy night’s sleep. Yeah, hat's just not true.
It's totally fine, even abundantly appropriate, to approach a baby’s bedtime differently from a toddler’s, differently from a kid’s, and so on. It's OK for babies to wake during the night. It's OK for young children to need more touch and care at bedtime. It's OK to let our kids develop certain sleep skills and habits in their own time, rather than pushing it before they're ready.
No matter what bedtime style we choose, we're going to constantly have to adjust as our kids grow and change, so there's no need to abandon what's working today for fear of being stuck with it years from now. When what we're doing no longer works for us, we can always change.