The Number One Mistake Parents Make in the Bedtime Routine

Raise your hand if this is (or was) your model of a bedtime routine:

  • Get baby ready for bed (bath, pjs etc.).
  • Nurse baby to sleep/till drowsy.
  • Put baby in crib
  • Tiptoe out and hope baby stays sleeping.

Are you raising your hand?

I sure hope so – because I most definitely am!

But you want to know what’s crazy? Nursing your baby to sleep or till he’s drowsy at bedtime is going to make him more likely to wake up in the middle of the night.

A-whaaat, Chaya Shifra? Are you sure about that?

Yep. I’m sure. In fact, that’s the most common mistake parents make in the bedtime routine.

So let’s talk about some background

The Powerful Bedtime Routine

Your baby’s bedtime routine is powerful. It has the power to put your baby into autopilot. It has the power to cue your baby’s body and brain. It has the power to diffuse the power struggles.

And it has the power to make or break your baby’s sleep.

Because of the way our circadian cycle works, we are wired with a strong drive to sleep at night. That drive is going to make it easier for us to fall asleep and stay asleep at night – and, ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר – whatever happens at night is going to affect the next day’s sleep, too.

Bedtime, which is where the night starts, holds the potency of beginnings. That means that whatever happens during your baby’s bedtime is going to affect

  • The middle of the night
  • The early hours of the morning
  • And the entire next day

Sound like a lot? Yeah, but, like I said — bedtimes are powerful.

And the reason that that pre-bed bottle can be so problematic is because as powerful as bedtimes are, associations are equally powerful – if not more powerful.

The (Also Powerful) Eat-Sleep Association

Unlike other props, the eat-sleep association is a lot trickier and a harder link to break. Harder to break because you can’t just stop feeding your baby (duh). Trickier because even if baby just gets a little drowsy or sleepy or even just closing her eyes while nursing/bottlefeeding, even though she’s sucking strongly, that link will still exist.

That means, of course, that if baby is actually nursing to sleep for either naps, bedtime or middle of the night – as in, going all the way from awake to asleep, not just getting a little drowsy- that link will be good and strong and alive.

Which is fine if you’re fine with it being good and strong and alive.

But if you’re not fine with that, the problem comes after the first sleep cycle. Or sometimes the second or third. Every baby – and sometimes every night – will be a little different. And naps will be different than the middle of the night.

But at some point, that baby that uses nursing or a bottle to fall asleep will finish a sleep cycle, have a partial awakening that’s shallow enough that he comes closer to awake, have to make the journey in to sleep all over again – and will think that he needs to nurse or get a bottle to sleep in order to do that. (If you’re not quite sure what I’m talking about, head over to my article on props for more info on this topic.)

And if that baby is up – you’re up too.

And, while I recommend keeping baby totally up at all feeds to prevent an eat-sleep association, having baby fall asleep during the bedtime routine is especially pernicious (I’ve always wanted to use that word in real life. It’s a good one, no?).

Because that bedtime routine is going to set the stage for the night and the next day. And if we’re setting the stage for the night with nursing to sleep, then guess what’s gonna happen that night and the next day?

(You’re smart. I’ll let you fill in the blank.)

Nursing/Bottle + Bedtime routine = ??

So what now? So you can’t have nursing/a bottle in your bedtime routine?

Woah, Sally! Stop right there. Who said you can’t have nursing or a bottle in your bedtime routine.

Of COURSE you can have nursing or a bottle in your bedtime routine. In fact – you should!

It’s not about the “what” it’s about the “when;” optimizing the timing of that feed so that your baby can still get the sleep he needs through the night and next day.

If your baby is under 4 months old, leave that feed as the last step in your bedtime routine, but be sure that baby stays totally awake so he can fall asleep on his own at bedtime.

If your baby is over 4 months, I recommend moving the feed to a little earlier in the routine – maybe say shema after he’s done nursing

By 6 months, I like to move that feed to either right before or right after the bath, and by 9 months, if it’s not yet before the bath, I like to bump it up then.

As you near 12 months, bump it earlier and earlier so that it turns into a sippy cup with cows’ milk as part of supper, or, for babies still nursing, a quick nurse after supper.

But what About Newborns?

Ahhh I was waiting for you to ask!

Newborns are a different breed (which is part of why I love working with them so much!)

Since newborns under 6 weeks don’t have strong associations yet, it’s not a problem to nurse your baby to sleep. In fact, I highly recommend nursing your baby to sleep for the first 2 weeks if that’s what will enable you to recover from birth and pregnancy.

That being said, though, since bedtime sets the stage for the rest of the night and day, when I work with newborn clients, bedtime is the first time of day that we aim for independent sleep. After a baby is 2 weeks old, I like to ensure that baby doesn’t fall asleep while nursing before bedtime, same as with an older baby. (I know, sounds a little crazy – but my baby started falling asleep independently when he was 9 days old. It wasn’t a stroll in the park, but he was able to, and it was well worth it!)

So tell me – sounds doable? Sounds crazy? A little of both?

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Comments (2)
  1. Susana Cohen

    yes! very doable I’ve been wanting to do this move the feeding before bath.. he is just to gross after eating food that I just need to give him a bath lol and then I have to give the other 2 baths.. he just went nurse with everyone around anymore. I’m gonna make an extra effort to pump and give him the bottle after he eats dinner. true, that’s what I did with my other 2 once they turn 12months

    • Great, Susana!

      I love that you found what will work for you and you’re diving in!

      Chaya Shifra