Kidsit Founder, Editor, Illustrator, and father of three beautiful kids in Sydney, Australia.
Bedtime can be one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, never mind babysitting. Some kids sleep on command; others will fight it like a ferocious Irish warrior.
If you’re out there looking for a simple solution like a “push-here-and-child-sleeps” button, there isn’t one. Every child is different, so there is no ultimate trick. However, in this guide, we’ll go over some approaches that really do work great when done correctly.
This is the single most important thing that you can do as a babysitter. Kids need a routine, regardless of how unruly they seem to be.
If kids go to bed late, it’ll actually be harder to put them to sleep. That’s because when the brain is overtired, it kicks into overdrive and releases cortisol (known as a stress hormone). This will keep the kids wide awake, and they’ll have a really hard time controlling their bodies and emotions. This isn’t a stage that you want to reach.
It’s also pretty likely that these challenges will extend into the next day as well. Kids thrive with structure, and bedtime is one of the most important elements within that structure.
One thing to keep in mind is that kids might need a little more time to get to bed when the parents are away. It doesn’t take much to throw kids off, and not having their parents around to take charge of the bedtime routine could cause a little anxiety.
In other words, don’t leave bedtime for the last minute. You need to be on the ball throughout the evening and keep one eye on the clock.
It’s pretty rare that a kid will just fall asleep without a ton of prep. Making the environment as conducive to good sleep as possible will make your job a lot easier.
The sleeping area needs to be dark. Most kids will be uncomfortable when it’s pitch black, so leaving the door cracked open with the hallway light on might be a good solution, and may be what they usually do.
Some sitters bring their own night lights, just in case. They’re super cheap to buy at a thrift or dollar store, and they won’t take up much space in your sitter kit. And, if you find one that’s colorful or pretty, the kids might be totally enthralled with it.
Obviously, the bedroom should be a quiet place, but there’s more to it than that. If the kids can hear things going on in the house while they’re supposed to be sleeping, there’s no way that they’ll stay in bed. They usually want to be where the action is.
In other words, don’t blast the TV, radio, or talk loudly on the phone when the kids are in bed. This is especially important when the door is cracked open. Even if the noises are soft, the kids will want to know what’s going on and sneak out of the room to find out.
Getting the kids properly layered up for bed is important, too. How you dress them at night will depend on a lot of factors, including their age.
For babies, a wearable blanket (aka sleep sack) is generally considered to be safer than a loose blanket that could cover their faces and suffocate them. Babies may be sleeping too deeply to respond to a decrease in their oxygen. They also may not have the motor skills required to pull a blanket off if it’s obstructing their breathing.
For children up to about three or four years of age, regulating their body temperature at night is a tricky balance. If a toddler is too warm, there’s a much higher chance of night terrors or nightmares. A child that’s too cold will be constantly waking up.
Waking is especially challenging in this age group because these kids will usually call for help if their blanket falls off instead of just fixing it themselves. Generally speaking, the ideal solution for two- to four-year-olds is to wear layers for pajamas (including socks, if the kid wants them) so that they can continue sleeping no matter what the blanket does.
In terms of room temperature, it’s best if it’s a little lower at night. Most consider the sweet spot to be from 68–70℉ (20–21℃), although every kid is different.
Pro tip for babies: It’s generally understood that having a fan in the room to circulate air is safer. According to this study, SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) was reduced 72% by this one factor alone.
Do not give kids everything their heart desires before bed. If you do, you could be in for a total disaster. A full stomach before bed can make it nearly impossible for the kids to have a good sleep.
On the other hand, a light and healthy snack is totally fine (with parent’s approval.) Some actually help! You’ll get the best results from foods that combine protein and carbs. They form amino acids that act like tryptophan, which is the thing that makes everyone sleepy after a turkey dinner. There are lots of other foods that aid sleep in other ways.
Here’s a list of great, sleep-friendly light snacks:
Just make sure that the kids do an extra good job of brushing their teeth after these snacks.
In reality, going to bed with an empty stomach can be even worse than going to bed full. As a babysitter, though, you’ll need to be careful with striking this balance. Lots of kids will feign hunger so that they can stay up later. This is especially common when the parents aren’t home. Don’t let them talk you into that.
Having a good supper in the evening will be enough for the majority of kids. If anything, a light snack will totally take care of the kid’s needs. It’s a good idea to take care of this way before bedtime so that it doesn’t throw off their routine. Ask them about an hour before bedtime if they would like a healthy snack (that the parents have approved of in your discussions earlier) and something to drink. And make sure to let them know it’s now or never.
As a babysitter, this is the single most important thing for you to get right. It’s a total make-or-break when it comes to sleeping success.
Kids need structure. Bedtime is when it’s absolutely the most critical. Because they won’t sleep with a snap of the fingers, they need to be mentally ready and wound down to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep.
The bedtime routine isn’t something that comes out of thin air; it’s a routine that’s already established in the home and that you need to follow religiously.
The best way for you, as a babysitter, to succeed with the bedtime routine is for you to follow how the parents do it as closely as possible. This means that you’ll need to spend some time going over it with them in detail before they leave. Walking tours of the house are a great opportunity to accomplish this.
Here are some questions to ask that will allow you to understand the family’s routine and how to keep the kids asleep:
This all sounds great and wonderful that you can simply follow a checklist and have the kids put to bed like a total pro—until the parents tell you that they don’t have a bedtime routine.
Don’t worry! It’s pretty uncommon, but you can still apply the principles of a typical routine to help you out. It just might be a bit more of a challenge to get the kids to go along with it.
Here’s what I would recommend.
Do the bedtime routine listed above by filling in your own best-guess information, and you can still discuss this with the parents to make a plan. Then make sure that you thoroughly explain to the kids what’s going on. Give them a two-minute warning before the routine starts, and then explain the steps along the way. As you’re completing each step in the routine, remind them of what’s coming next and when.
Talk to the parents about how long it usually takes them to get to bed. Even if they say that the kids fall asleep right away, try to budget at least half an hour for the routine. If they say it can take a while, then budget an hour or more. For the longest time, my defiant 3-year-old needed a 3-hour routine!
This will all take some extra patience, but it’s definitely doable.
There are a few practical suggestions for ways to calm the kids down before bedtime:
One of the best things you can do is to keep the atmosphere as relaxing as possible. Soft voices and a super soothing attitude will have a calming effect on the kids.
Another trick you might want to try is to play spa music. I like to pull up YouTube on my phone and search “spa music.” This works especially well if you have bluetooth speakers that you can connect to. Dim lights and keep it peaceful. Spa music is super effective for the winding down process.
One critical step is to make sure that the bedtime story is calm. For young children and toddlers, exciting adventure stories, while definitely a lot of fun, can be entirely counter-productive.
I like telling happy stories for girls, e.g., about beautiful, colorful, sparkly butterflies that live on rainbows and share candy with anyone that walks by. My daughter loves listening to these kinds of stories because it gives her something happy to think about, and it can completely calm her down, so she's ready for bed.
For my boys, I try telling stories about diggers and dump trucks, simple problem-and-solution stories, or other things that are mildly interesting for their age group. The point is to keep the excitement at an absolute zero. At this point, the kids need to be ready to drop off to sleep.
This is a special concern when parents are away. A simple change in circumstances, especially around bedtime, can make the child’s mind race with uncertainties. They’ve learned to trust that their parents will take care of them, and you might be viewed as a bit of a question mark when it comes to your ability to scour the room for monsters and bugs.
One thing that’s really important is to avoid trying to diminish or dismiss their fears. Acknowledge them, talk about them briefly, and discuss solutions.
For example, for some younger kids, telling the story of the three little pigs at bedtime might make it difficult for them to relax and go to sleep because all they can think of might be the big bad wolf.
Whatever their fear is, acknowledge it. Try to equip them to deal with it confidently. This might mean giving them a special object or telling another calm, short story incorporating an example of another little child who learned how to make the problem go away. This can take a little creativity, but it’s a great way to calm their minds and help them get to sleep.
If the kids were overstimulated during the day, it could definitely make sleep more of a challenge.
For example, when babies learn to crawl, they’re known to have a few terrible nights of sleep. This is just because they can’t stop thinking about it; they’re wired and consumed with this newfound ability.
Older children are different, but there’s still a boundary that you don’t want to cross. If they uncover some sort of earth-shattering information during the day, it could be hard to stop thinking about it. This doesn’t refer to interesting information in response to the 5 million standard “why” questions you might get throughout the day. It’s more related to the types of revolutionary new concepts that blow their minds.
For example, try to avoid telling a very young girl which part of their body a baby comes out of. Leave that to the parents to explain.
Another thing that children require to be able to sleep properly is physical activity earlier in the day. If you spend several hours in the afternoon binge-watching movies with them instead of going outside to play, they’re going to have a hard time getting to bed. If the TV has been the real babysitter, then you’re in for it.
You don’t want to do any high-energy athletics in the hours before bedtime, but mid-afternoon is the perfect time to get them moving. Play outside, let them run around, have a dance party, go to the park, go swimming… all of these things will make for a more welcome bedtime.
Putting a 5-month-old baby down for bed is totally different from getting a toddler or older child to sleep.
Here are a few very effective suggestions for getting a baby to sleep:
The bedtime routine needs to be significantly shorter for a young infant. It can consist of:
There are also a few bedtime elements that are quite age-specific.
While it’s not as common for a newborn to need a sitter, it does happen. Here’s what to do, beyond the generic list above:
Swaddle the baby if it’s recommended by the parents.
If you want more information on a great method for calming babies and putting them to sleep, check out the 5 S’s by doctor Harvey Karp.
This is more commonly the age you might be sitting for. At this point, the baby should be a bit more mobile. Here are some tips:
This is where it can get much easier from a safety standpoint. At this age, babies are much more mobile. Regular blankets have replaced sleep sacks. Challenges with sleep are more commonly due to behavioral issues, failure to maintain a schedule and bedtime routine, teething, or a sign that the baby isn’t sleeping well.
New recommendations from the experts that came out in 2015 included the following sleep guidelines for children:
As you can see, a common trend is that only babies are getting enough sleep! This means putting all children to bed on time is essential. It will help them to behave and control their emotions, have improved attention and concentration, and have an overall more successful day.
Turn off the TV and any other electronics at least two hours before bedtime. According to one study, light from a screen can reduce the amount of melatonin that the body produces. This is the chemical that makes us sleepy.
Reading books is an excellent way to wind children down and get them prepared for bed. Often kids used to a very regular bedtime routine that involves reading a story will start yawning right on cue.
If you have a stubborn child who refuses to sleep, then I highly recommend The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep by Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin. This book is amazing and can get almost any child to fall asleep. It even makes me sleepy when I read it!
Cortisol is a stress hormone that does a wonderful job of keeping kids wide awake. It is produced naturally when kids are overtired (giving you that “second wind.”) Once this happens, it’s ten times harder to put these little critters to sleep.
The best thing you can do is make sure that the bedtime routine happens on time and is followed to a T. This will naturally allow their little bodies to produce the chemicals needed just in time for a great sleep.
Almost every kid has a “security object”— a blanket, teddy bear, doll, etc. Make sure that you know exactly which object belongs to each kid and have it at the ready. Having to search around for it before bedtime can be stressful for the kids.
This is a classic yet devious tactic that nearly every kid maximizes. It can manifest in “I need a sip of water,” or “I’m hungry,” or “I’m scared” (with a smirk). Try to ward it off by anticipating all the most common requests and incorporating them into the bedtime routine.
Your objective should be relaxation, not sleep. Sleep will happen naturally when the kids feel totally at ease. If you’re constantly telling them to close their eyes and go to sleep, they might find it frustrating or stressful. They might feel pressured to do something that they’re not quite ready for.
Instead, just focus on helping them to feel as relaxed as possible.
Here’s something that I tried with my own kids: We called it the “calm thought.”
I’d ask them to close their eyes so we can play imagination. Then I’d tell them a little story. Something like this, speak very slowly with a gentle voice:
“Imagine we’re in a beautiful forest. There are butterflies all around. We have a picnic with (insert favorite food here - although this may make some kids hungry, so you might have to individualize.) There are rainbows in the sky sprinkling sparkly glitter all over the earth. A gentle breeze is flowing softly through the forest. (Swish your hand above their faces.) Can you feel the breeze? Now the sun is coming out, and we are beginning to feel the warmth on our skin. Do you feel the sun on your cheeks? It’s making us feel so warm and so sleepy… let’s relax in the sun and have sweet dreams about (insert things that the kids like here).”
Every child is different, so you might need to customize it a bit, but it really can work like a charm.
Just remember the main point: Focus on relaxation, do the routine so that they’re mentally prepared, and sleep will come naturally.
If you're faced with particularly stubborn children, read our essential guide: How to babysit difficult children to learn additional strategies for disarming tantrums and encouraging kids to do the right thing.
Have you lost sleep during an overnight babysitting job? Read our guide to surviving babysitting night shifts to learn the secrets for coping with sleepless nights.
Written & Illustrated by:
Kidsit Founder, Editor, Illustrator, and father of three beautiful kids in Sydney, Australia.
Medically Reviewed by:
Dr. Gina Jansheski is a board-certified pediatrician with over 20 years of experience treating infants and children of all ages in many different settings.
Updated: 9 November 2019
First Published: 15 December 2018
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