Before you turn to books, blogs, sleep-coaches, apps, or one of many products in search of a more satisfying slumber, you might want to consult a toddler. Luckily, there are millions of these tiny advisors waddling around, ready to serve as top-notch sleep role models.
Why we need good sleep habits
Catching Z’s is critical for many functions of the human body, and current guidelines recommend adults consistently get at least seven hours of sleep per night. Previous research has shown that decreased sleep is associated with an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and depression. More recent research has linked a lack of sleep in adults in their 50s to 70s to the development of dementia.
Sleep is even more important for young children, as they need it for growth and development. In fact, pediatricians recommend toddlers get 11 to 14 hours of sleep in every 24-hour period. So how do these little people deal with such heavy dozing demands? It is quite simple, really: routine.
First, set a bedtime
To start, a consistent bedtime is critical, and there is good quality data that shows regular bedtimes help improve toddler sleep. This is equally important for adults and should be consistent across weekdays as well as weekends.
[Related: 5 reasons you can’t sleep]
Once a bedtime is set, you can develop a routine around it. Research by psychologist Jodi Mindell and colleagues at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has demonstrated how a three-step bedtime routine is helpful. In their study, 199 mothers and their toddlers (aged 1.5 to 3 years) were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group followed their regular bedtime routine, and the other group was instructed to implement a specific routine consisting of a bath, applying lotion, and a quiet activity. The time between the end of the bath and lights out was 30 minutes.
After two weeks, the toddlers practicing the three-step routine not only fell asleep faster, they had fewer and shorter nighttime awakenings. Interestingly, when the researchers later analyzed infants and young toddlers (aged 7 months to 1.5 years) following the same routine, they found that the most significant effects of improved sleep appeared after just three days.
Take a bath
Each of the steps in the three-step toddler routine are easy to implement, starting with the hot water bath. These comforting soaks are not just for 2-year-olds. A comprehensive study published in 2019 examined 13 different adult studies and found that scheduling a hot bath or shower one or two hours before a planned bedtime significantly shortened the time it took to go to sleep, even if the rinse lasted as little as 10 minutes. Humans naturally drop their body temperature prior to and during sleep, which helps them remain asleep. Hot baths or showers accelerate this cooling by dilating blood vessels close to the skin, increasing blood flow and releasing heat.
Step two is applying lotion. Ideally, applying lotion would be coupled with a massage, as massage therapy has been shown to improve sleep in children and adults. Furthermore, in a study that randomized 76 infants to receive a bedtime massage with lotion, a massage without lotion, or no massage, it was the infants that had a lotion massage that experienced longer periods of sleep.
As it is not likely practical for you to receive a massage every night, applying lotion and doing a self massage may act as a close approximation. Massage is thought to work by activating pressure receptors and increasing parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system activity. This has been shown in multiple studies to reduce your heart rate and help you relax.
Enjoy a relaxing activity
Finally, wrap up your routine with a quiet activity. While there are many to choose from, language-based activities like reading and storytelling have been proven to work well. Research led by Lauren Hale at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine analyzed data in children under 5 years of age from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study—a large cohort study following nearly 5,000 American children who are now in their 20s. Parents were first interviewed after their child was born, and a follow-up interview and home visit occurred at three years of age. At this home visit, researchers collected specific bedtime information. Monitoring ended when the children turned 5. Overall, the researchers found that language-based bedtime routines were associated with longer nighttime sleep duration. They also found additional benefits of increased test scores and decreased behavioral problems.
Adults have also been shown to benefit from reading. Even 30 minutes of reading can decrease stressful feelings, reduce blood pressure, and lower heart rate in young adults.
Individually, each of these toddler-endorsed tips can do a lot to maintain and improve your health. Together, they’re a formidable weapon for anyone struggling to sleep. Start tonight.