When my son was born, I realized pretty quickly that, though my partner and I had discussed almost every other detail of our parenting styles, we had never talked about routines or schedules. I think we both assumed the baby would lead the way in that department. In some ways, that's been true. But I soon learned that Olin (who is now two) needed us to help him establish patterns for his two most important activities: eating and sleeping.
If you like routines yourself, you might find setting a schedule for your baby to be a natural, even easy, process. But if you're like me, and prefer spontaneity in your day, you might find it to be a big challenge. Fortunately, the rewards of getting your baby into a comfortable routine are perhaps as great for you as for him or her.
A routine that works will help you know when you have a window of time coming up for getting chores done — or for rest! — as well as providing your little one with a sense of security.
A baby's two main jobs are what I think of as "the two biggies:" eating and sleeping. When we moms talk about routines for our infants, it almost always comes down to how often, how much, and how regularly they eat and sleep. Not only does every baby have different appetites for both, but those appetities will vary from day to day, and as the baby grows.
Is Feeding Like Clockwork Possible?
My son, for example, was happy to nurse all the time; nursing comforted him when he was fussy and seemed to help him fall asleep. But then we developed a pattern in which it became difficult for me to get him to unlatch, especially at night, and this created problems for both of us. I got sore breasts, and Olin didn't sleep deeply.
My partner started walking him to put him back to sleep — endlessly up and down the stairs, all around our house, and even outside when it was warm enough. When he got a little older we bundled him up, strapped him into his car seat, and drove him around until he was out deeply enough for us to transfer him to his crib with confidence. All this just to establish a feeding routine! Over time, Olin's need for ceaseless motion decreased, and he was able to unlatch and go directly into his crib. He clearly needed something to transition him from the breast to the crib, and eventually even a little motion, such as rocking briefly, did the trick.
Circle of Moms member Jennifer suggests that a stable feeding routine might not be possible until your baby begins eating sold foods. "When she begins to eat real foods.... she is being filled up longer," says this mom of two, and childcare experts agree.
Penelope Leach, in Your Baby and Child, writes that newborns need time to "settle into life outside the womb," and that their hunger signals take a while to present in recognizable ways.
This could explain why my son didn't get on a reliable feeding schedule until he was three or four months-old.
Should You Sleep Train?
Sleep has been a more challenging puzzle. When all of my parent-friends began talking about "sleep training," I instinctively knew that the "cry-it-out" methods did not appeal to me at all, even though they clearly worked for some. I think these techniques developed largely out of parents' desires to have their children get on adult clocks, which invariably means sleeping through the night. And I don't think some babies are prepared to do that in their first year — or even two — of life.
Yet, routines have value nonetheless, and they encourage babies to learn to put themselves to sleep. I've had the most success with the "sleep lady shuffle," Kim Wests' popular method that involves slowly removing yourself from your baby's bedside until he or she is comfortable going down alone. It can take several weeks, and is a gentler method than the cry-it-out styles of sleep training.
Olin started putting himself to sleep in his crib and sleeping through the night when he was about 20 months-old, but any change in routine (especially travel to another time zone) threatens the reliability of this routine, often for weeks or months after we get back home.
Of course, I long for more sleep, but I no longer envy the parents whose children have been sleeping all night since they were six months old. I'm experienced enough as a mom now to know that my son will sleep through the night when he's ready.
We've established routines that will hopefully help him, such as keeping bedtime consistent and giving him long warm baths just before he goes down. Then we read his favorite book a few times, and he's primed. We've been doing this since he was a newborn, long before he knew one book from another.
It's important to remember that establishing routines doesn't necessarily mean your baby will sleep through the night. An infant's individual nature comes into play here, too; some sleep easily and for long, uninterrupted periods, and others simply don't.
What Works Best for Your Family?
Decide early on how much flexibility you have. If you need to make regular 8 a.m. meetings with a clear head, then consider some of the sleep techniques that seem to work. If you have more flexibility, then follow your child's lead and see what happens. And remember, even once you've established a routine, it will change as your child develops.
Vicky D., in the February 2011 Babies community, who has three kids, says that perseverance is of the essence: "Stick with it, stay positive, and the baby will benefit from your positivity and progress to a suitable routine."
Image Source: minoru_ntt via Flickr/Creative Commons
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