How to sleep better, in 3 easy steps

A small child, a toddler, sleeping.

Before you turn to books, blogs, sleep coaches, apps, or any of the many some products looking for more satisfying sleep, you might want to check out a toddler. Luckily, there are millions of these tiny advisers waddling around, ready to serve as prime sleep models.

Why We Need Good Sleep Habits

Catching the Z’s is essential for many functions of the human body, and current guidelines recommend adults consistently sleep at least seven hours by night. Previous research has shown that decreased sleep is associated with high risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and depression. More recent research has linked sleep deprivation in adults between the ages of 50 and 70 to development of dementia.

Sleep is even more important for young children, as they need it to growth and development. In fact, pediatricians recommend that toddlers 11 to 14 hours of sleep in each 24 hour period. So how do these little people cope with such heavy sleepiness demands? It’s quite simple, really: routine.

First, set a bedtime

For starters, a consistent bedtime is essential, and there is good quality data that shows regular bedtimes help improve toddler sleep. This is just as important for adults and should be consistent on weekdays as well as weekends.

[Related: 5 reasons you can’t sleep]

Once the bedtime is set, you can develop a routine around it. Research by psychologist Jodi Mindell and her colleagues at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has shown how a three-step bedtime routine is helpful. In their study, 199 mothers and their toddlers (ages 1.5 to 3) were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group followed their usual bedtime routine and the other group was instructed to implement a specific routine consisting of bathing, applying lotion and quiet activity. The time between the end of the bath and the turning off of the lights was 30 minutes.

After two weeks, toddlers doing the three-step routine not only fell asleep faster, they had fewer and shorter nighttime awakenings. Interestingly, when the researchers then analyzed infants and toddlers (ages 7 months to 1.5 years) following the same routine, they found that the most significant effects of improved sleep appeared after only three days.

Take a bath

Each of the steps in the three-step toddler routine is easy to implement, starting with the hot water bath. These comforting baths aren’t just for 2-year-olds. A comprehensive review published in 2019 looked at 13 different studies on adults and found that schedule a hot bath or taking a shower one or two hours before your expected bedtime dramatically shortened the time it took to fall asleep, even if the rinse was only 10 minutes. Humans naturally lower their body temperature before and during sleep, which helps them stay asleep. Hot baths or showers hasten this cooling by dilating blood vessels near the skin, increasing blood flow and releasing heat.

Apply Lotion

The second step is to apply lotion. Ideally, the application of lotion would be coupled with massage, as massage therapy has been shown to improve children’s sleep and adults. Moreover, in a study who randomized 76 infants to receive bedtime massage with lotion, massage without lotion, or no massage, infants who received massage with lotion experienced longer periods of sleep.

Since it’s probably not practical for you to have a massage every night, applying lotion and self-massage can be a close approximation. Massage is thought to work by activating pressure receptors and increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity (rest and digestion). This has been shown in several studies to reduce your heart rate and help you relax.

Enjoy a relaxing activity

Finally, end your routine with a quiet activity. Although there are many choices, language activities as reading and storytelling have proven themselves. Research led by Lauren Hale at Stony Brook University School of Medicine analyzed data in children under age 5 of the Study on fragile families and the well-being of children—a large cohort study of nearly 5,000 American children who are now in their twenties. Parents were interviewed for the first time after the birth of their child, and a follow-up interview and home visit took place at age three. During this home visit, the researchers gathered specific information about bedtime. Supervision ended when the children reached the age of 5. Overall, the researchers found that language-based bedtime routines were associated with longer nighttime sleep duration. They also found additional benefits related to increased test scores and decreased behavioral issues.

Adults have also been shown to benefit from reading. Even 30 minutes of reading may decrease feelings of stress, reduce blood pressure and lower heart rate in young adults.

Individually, each of these toddler-approved tips can do a lot to maintain and improve your health. Together, they are a formidable weapon for anyone who has trouble sleeping. Start tonight.