Is “bedtime” a bad word at your house? Does the tuck-in process leave you tuckered out? If bedtime is a battle, night after night, sleep cues may be your ticket to success. Called “sleep onset associations” by medical professionals, sleep cues are the building blocks of an effective bedtime routine. When used consistently, sleep cues tell the brain that it’s time to slow down and rest. With a few tweaks to your evening rituals, you can create powerful sleep cues that will help everyone wind down and relax—even older kids who shun lullabies and bedtime stories.

From the age of six months, children can develop associations between certain events or objects and falling asleep. “We see this in animals and humans,” says sleep expert Susan Rausch, MD. “Babies and young kids learn that certain things in a certain sequence lead to sleep. Basically, A plus B plus C plus D equals sleep.”

If this sounds like your kind of math, read on. These scientifically-proven cues will help your brood wind down, feel sleepy, and actually want to go to bed.

Cue 1: Made in the Shade
According to sleep specialist Roslinde Collins, MD, a dark bedroom is important to healthy rest. But darkness also plays a major role in sleep preparation; it cues the brain’s production of melatonin, known for regulating biological rhythms and helping us feel sleepy.

Make it work for you:
Create a peaceful, sleep-inducing atmosphere by dimming the lights after dinner. Stumbling around in the dark isn’t necessary; just draw the shades and turn off unnecessary lights about an hour before bedtime. Collins recommends turning off or covering all light sources in the bedroom, including lighted clocks, electronic toys, and screens.

Cue 2: Sound of Music
For an easier bedtime, make some noise. Yes, you read that correctly. Consistently using the same sound or music near bedtime creates a positive sleep association that cues relaxation. Whether you select classical music, rainforest sounds, ocean waves, or plain old white noise, the type of sound is less important than that your family uses the same one repeatedly. Over time, the sound will signal to your child’s brain that it’s time to wind down, sleepytime is near.

Make it work for you:
To incorporate noise into your bedtime routine, simply choose any type of sound your whole family finds soothing. You should use the sound early in the bedtime routine, says Rausch. Play soft music or white noise 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime for a subtle yet effective cue that it’s time for sleep.

We know you're getting sleepy (very sleepy), but don't hit the hay just yet. —>


Cue 3: Nighttime Nosh
A bedtime bite to eat banishes hunger and provides an important sleep cue that kids will ultimately learn to associate with bedtime. Depending on what kids eat, snacks may help them fall asleep faster, too. When paired with complex carbohydrates, tryptophan-rich foods such as meat, dairy, soy, or nuts can help kids feel sleepy—the insulin spike that follows carbohydrate consumption helps tryptophan enter the brain.

Make it work for you:
Serve a wholesome snack about an hour before bed. Consider tryptophan-carbohydrate combinations like whole-grain cereal and milk, oatmeal cookies and cocoa, whole-wheat crackers and cheese, or sesame seeds sprinkled on half a peanut-butter sandwich.

A pacifier, book, or well-loved toy is helpful, as long as Mommy and Daddy aren’t summoned to locate it, wind it up, or turn it on in the middle of the night.

Cue 4: Smells like Bedtime
Ancient folklore and modern science are in agreement about the calming effects of scents. Lavender aromas have been proven to slow down the nervous system and promote deep sleep. And German researchers recently proved that the scent of Gardenia has a powerful sedative effect. When used near bedtime, a soothing scent signals to your family that the day is over (and makes your house smell great, too!).

Make it work for you:
Incorporate scent into your evening ritual by gently simmering water infused with essential oils or vanilla extract, plugging in a child-safe scent diffuser, or (carefully, of course) lighting a scented candle with your kids.

Cue 5: Sleep Security
Security objects like special blankets or stuffed animals are powerful sleep cues, say Rausch. Sleep specialists call these items “transitional objects” because they ease the transition to slumber. They’re often the last element of a bedtime routine and remain with the child as she drifts off to sleep.

Make it work for you:
According to Rausch, the ideal transitional object is one that the child can control himself. A stuffed toy is good, she notes, because a child can snuggle with it throughout the night as needed without getting up out of bed or waking others. Pacifiers, books, music, and well-loved toys all work well, as long as Mommy and Daddy aren’t summoned to locate it, wind it up, or turn it on in the middle of the night.

Wind Down
Keeping sleep cues simple is the key to their success, says Rausch. “Parents need to think about what they can realistically do, every night.”
Try out a few cues on your kids tonight and shortly see what magic unfolds before your very eyes. When bedtime becomes a breeze, you’ll actually enjoy it. And, once the kids are asleep, you’ll have energy left over to take care of that pile of laundry—or not. It’s time for moms and dads to get a good night’s rest, too!

Malia Jacobson is a freelance journalist and mom who writes frequently about children’s sleep and health issues.


Need more sleep tips and tricks? No problem.