Getting kids, any amount of kids, ready for bed can be a monumental task. Somehow they hear the word "Bedtime!" and it triggers a response to turn off any listening skills they may have had, play with toys while half in a pair of pants, and drag every part of their bedding into another room. No? Just us... oh.
Though we've added many kids over the years (five kids in six years to be exact) our bedtime routine has remained the same. The only thing that has changed is how long it takes... because more bodies. Thankfully the older kids are pretty self sufficient and need minimal, if any, help getting ready. Mercedes needs reminders to stay on task and the little guys obviously need our assistance. It will be a beautiful day (and a little bittersweet) when all parts of the routine can be completed without our hands on help!
1. After dinner cleanup
Our routine actually starts right after dinner. I usually try to have dinner on the table about 530pm because eating can take anywhere from 30-60 minutes depending on what is on the menu. Foods they love to eat get inhaled and the foods that aren't the favorite get pushed around and lazily eaten with several moans. It's one piece of broccoli, just put it in your mouth and chew! Anyway...
After each child is done eating, rinses their plate, and puts it in the dishwasher (if it's cleaned out and ready... otherwise it sits on the counter until I motivate) they head upstairs to help clean up the living room. We clean up the toys each night before bed so I'm not tripping over them the rest of the night. The kids know that the faster the toys get cleaned up the more time we have for books at night. Some nights we are lucky to have time for one book and other nights each kid gets to pick one. It's pretty good motivation. I do have to help because the little guys end up taking toys back out so I try to keep them on track. They are learning... little by little.
2. Bedtime alarm
Have you ever been wrapped up doing things after dinner and not realized what time it was until you are well past when bedtime should have started? I know there are days when I watch the clock just begging it to tick down to bedtime but there are many days when we are playing, cleaning up, or watching a show and lose track of time. I have an alarm set to go off every single night at 645pm to signal the start of bedtime.
What? 645pm?!?! I know what you're thinking. "Katie, we don't get home until 6pm so after dinner, homework, baths, etc., there is NO WAY that works for us." Obviously. I'm not saying it should. I'm home, we don't have after school activities, and all that other jazz that allows us to have this schedule. Do what works for your family.
The start of the routine is just that - the start. It's not bedtime, it's just a reminder that the day is winding down and I can begin to get things going. It's the time I send the big boys to the shower or give the little ones a bath when they need it. It's when I send them to get pjs on and have them brush their teeth. If it's not a bath/shower night and everyone has behaved really well I might give them an extra 10 or 15 minutes of play time. But if attitudes are gross then you can bet your buttons I'm starting things right at 645pm.
The great thing about the alarm? The kids know what it means. It's a different song than my other alarms so the kids hear it and know to head to their rooms and start getting ready.
3. PJs & Brush teeth
If it's a shower or bath night for any of the kids they get that done first but otherwise when the alarm goes off it means get into pajamas and get your tooth brush. The three big kids can obviously do this themselves so I send them to their rooms to get it done while I focus on the little guys. I hand them their toothbrushes so they can practice while I get their diapers and pjs on.
Once they are dressed I sing the ABCs with each of them while I brush their teeth. We started this when our oldest was little and have continued it down the line. The song is long enough to get all their teeth when they are still little and sneaks in a little learning for good measure. For the big kids I have papers with their address and phone number written down tacked on their bathroom mirror. They are supposed to read over both 10 times to help learn them. I don't think they remember to most days but at least they see the numbers and letters over and over. Hopefully they will help with recognizing them.
4. Bedtime reading
Once someone is dressed in pjs with their teeth brushed he/she is supposed to wait in the living room for everyone to be done. After we are all done the "it" person for the night gets to choose the book. We rotate oldest to youngest for the "it" person and if they have done a stellar job getting ready and we have extra time I'll let others pick books as well. It's a battle to get everyone situated on the couch so everyone can see the pages. I try getting them to sit on the floor in front of me but everyone wants cuddle time so we do our best to all cram together. The little guys don't stay still for long but they are learning.
Because the big boys have reading time right after school I usually do the reading at night (also to help it go faster) but sometimes I'll let them do the reading depending on the book. But it's nice to have a frustration free reading time before bed. Even though our boys are great readers they can stumble and get worked up when they don't know a word. Not a great way to end the day in my mind! It's much nicer to listen to mommy read while they settle down for the night.
5. Talking about the day
This is one of my favorite parts of the bedtime routine because no matter how icky our day might have been we take the time to focus on a good part. Starting with the "it" person and working our way down the line we ask the kids two questions:
1. How was your day? (it's rare for anyone to say something other than, "good")
2. What are two things that made you happy today?
It's really interesting to hear what they choose as the highlight. There are days when I'm sure the best part was riding bikes or trying a new treat and instead they say the game they played at school or sitting on daddy's lap during tv time.
Now that the little guys have joined us for this part I look forward to it even more. They rattle off all kinds of words that make no sense but they want to join in with their siblings and share about their day <3
5. Kid Prayers
We start once again with the "it" person and roll on down the line so each person can pray for whatever they want. Years ago we taught the boys the "Five Fingered Prayer" but rarely does what they pray for change. We talk about praying for different things and actually having a conversation with God but that hasn't quite clicked yet. But they hear Micah and I often pray very similar things day to day as well so it's understandable that they would gravitate towards repeated prayers.
6. Off to bedrooms
Once we hit this point it's usually about 730pm. Or at least that's our goal. We try to get all the kids to head to their rooms at that time since there is still one part of the routine left to go. The big kids head to the basement to their rooms. They are responsible for making sure they have every special toy, blanket, water bottle, book, or anything else they might need in their rooms ready to go. If we get to their rooms to tuck them in and they don't have it they are out of luck.
There has been an occasional night when a special blanket or stuffed animal has been forgotten somewhere and obviously the child is disappointed but we are really trying to encourage personal responsibility. If the night has been out of the ordinary because of an activity or guests we show some grace and let them find the item but on a normal night we have to stick to our guns. It's pretty rare anymore that something gets forgotten but when it does it reinforces our beliefs that they need to learn to be responsible for their own items and reminds them why it's so important to double check their beds!
7. Prayers with Mommy (and Daddy)
Most nights of the week Micah is still at work when bedtime rolls around so I do the praying with the kids but when he's home it's both of us. When the three big kids head to their rooms I bring the little guys to their room and we cuddle and pray before saying goodnight. Right now I'm still holding both of them in my arms but I know there is going to be a day (soon!) that I won't be able to comfortably hold both of them. I think I'm going to have to switch to sitting on the floor or something easy. Once we've prayed the twins give me kisses then each other kisses and I put each of them in their beds and say goodnight. Then it's off to the big kids!
Mercedes hangs out in the boys' room until it's time for bed so we all pray together and occasionally she'll ask her brothers to pray specifically for her as well. The big guys get hugs and kisses from everyone then Mercedes heads to her room where we pray once more for good dreams and good behavior choices at bedtime (she struggles on occasion). Several hugs and kisses later we are done and in theory, on a perfect night, all the kids are in bed and will stay there!
We've tweaked this over the years and even in the last several months parts of it have been adjusted to reflect the different ages of our kids. The little guys didn't used to be included but now they usually are (on a rough nap day they may get put to bed before books). We used to do the books and talking in one of the big kid rooms but now that the little guys are a part of it we need to do it in the living room to fit everyone. We have to be adaptable to the different changes our family will go through.
I know that as the kids get older the bedtime alarm will get pushed back or not needed at all. The after dinner clean up might not be such a battle some nights (right?) or eventually won't happen because there won't be 3 million small toys strewn about (sad!). They will be staying up later and hanging out with us or will be out with friends or at activities or anything else that comes with kids getting older and branching out. We will continue to modify as needed and someday we will scrap the whole thing because a routine won't be necessary or even possible.
How do you create a bedtime routine if you don't have one or if your current routine doesn't work?
1. Figure out what time you want your kids in bed and work backward from there.
Think about what you need or want to have as part of it and about how long it will take (over estimate!) and create a start time. Talk to your kids about the routine and how things are going to flow. Help them learn, along with you, what the new routine is so they know what to expect from part to part.
2. Give yourself plenty of grace and time cushions when you start.
It will never go perfectly the first time or even the hundredth time. We've been using a basic form of this routine since our oldest Parker was a baby and there are still nights when we look at the kids and ask them if they've forgotten what they do every night because they can't seem to stay on task. Take a breath when you want to pull your hair out and move on to whatever is next on your list.
3. Find what works for you!
I broke our routine down to the most basic of steps so it seems like quite a bit but really they all lead into one another fairly smoothly. I remember when we were first parents and the baby books talked about bath followed by lotion with a baby massage followed by this that and the other thing. I think we did it one time before we threw it out the window and found something that worked for us. We like having quiet time after our kids are in bed so we opt for a fairly early bedtime in our house. Maybe because of activities or your personalities or whatever you prefer a later time - cool. Set a later bedtime. Find what works for your family and make it happen.
4. Be willing to change things if it doesn't work.
Let's say you've got a routine that almost works but there are one or two parts that frequently cause friction and frustrations. Step back and figure out if there is a new or different way to do those things. Does reading a book get the kids riled up? Perhaps that needs to happen right at the beginning rather than at the end. Does your child ask for fifteen drinks of water as soon as you've said goodnight? Maybe you are able to provide a spill-proof cup for their room so they have a water supply at night.
There will probably be some rough nights as everyone adjusts if you are creating a brand new routine. Even minor changes can sometimes cause some dramatic moments - like when school starts and we aren't as lenient with the time frame - but be persistent and it will pay off. We have seen our kids thrive with a routine because they know what to expect and (usually) that acting up during the bedtime routine has consequences. Even when we travel we try to stick to a bare bones version of this routine will helps everyone feel a bit more comfortable when they are out of their element.