I receive lots of questions asking about putting babies on a schedule or routine. Namely whether they are a good idea and if so, when should you implement them?
To answer this, we need to differentiate between the idea of schedules (rigidly timed activities over the course of the day/night) and routines (repeating the same activities in the same order each day). While I am not at all a fan of schedules, routines on the other hand are something different. Let’s look at schedules – and why I think they’re so inappropriate for babies – first.
Babies are not robots. I know that is a ridiculous thing to say, but I sometimes wonder if we forget that they are tiny, thinking, feeling beings with needs. Think about the last 24hrs of your life. When did you decide to eat, drink, rest, play on social media, talk to your friend/partner/relative and go to sleep? Did you do all of these activities based on the clock? Or did you do them in response to physical and emotional internal drives? ie – did you eat because you were hungry, drink because you were thirsty and slept because you were tired? Or because the clock struck 12, or 10? Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to have somebody override all of these innate drives and tell you exactly when you could – or most importantly couldn’t – eat, drink, play, sleep and rest? Why do we impose this on babies? Why do we think we know their levels of hunger, thirst, tiredness and need for human interaction better than them?
In writing my The Gentle Eating Book it became apparent to me that every piece of research I came across, supported the idea of responsive feeding in infancy. In short, this means that for the best outcomes (by that I mean weight gain, health, future eating habits, risk of obesity and so on) for babies, they need to be fed (and for babies eating and thirst may be different entirely – but both require milk) when THEY need to be fed. The healthiest thing a parent can do is watch for their cues and follow them. Enforcing a feeding/drinking routine on a baby is setting them up for a risk of eating problems for the rest of their life. When a baby is tiny (in the first few months of life), responsive feeding is even more important, especially if you’re breastfeeding. Setting the clock on breastfeeding is a surefire way to make it stop prematurely. Schedules and breastfeeding just don’t work, babies fail to thrive, milk supply dwindles (because babies are prohibited from the ‘comfort sucking’ and cluster feeding they need to establish supply) and inevitably the breastfeeding stops before mum and baby are ready to cease.
It’s not just eating that schedules impact negatively on. To set sleep to a strict schedule is naive. There are two drivers of sleep – circadian rhythm (the body’s response to light/dark and the hormonal reaction that follows) and a sleep deficit. The latter refers to the amount of time the body can go before it *needs* to sleep again. Sleep deficits differ for all individuals. Some babies can stay awake for 5 hrs before needing to sleep, others need to sleep after 1.5hrs. Importantly, sleep deficits can and do change on a daily basis – in response to activity, wellness, growth/development spurts and based on sleep in the previous 24hrs. Trying to enforce an artificial sleep schedule misses the individuality babies need. They don’t just need you to see them as an individual, they need you to see each day as individual. The most healthy response to sleep for a baby? It’s no different to the healthiest approach to feeding – responsive and mindful of the baby’s ever changing needs and cues.
DOES THIS MEAN NO ROUTINES ARE GOOD?
No, it doesn’t. Everything I have discussed so far relates to schedules – artificially imposing rigid timings. A routine can be – and is – different. We all incorporate routine into our lives, even if we don’t think we do. At night, I go to the bathroom, wash, brush my teeth, visit the toilet and then get a glass of water to take to bed. That’s a bedtime routine. It’s one I repeat wherever I am. The timings vary though – often by hours, because I go to sleep when I’m tired, not because of setting an arbitrary bedtime.
Babies and children thrive on routine. Doing the same things in the same order, in the same way help them to make sense of the world and feel safe by giving them a sense of predictability. Research agrees – the best way to encourage sleep, is to have a great bedtime routine. What the research doesn’t say though is that this routine must be kept to a strict schedule. Timing doesn’t matter, order and content does.
DO YOU NEVER SET A ROUTINE TO A TIME?
Sometimes. In the early days – no, never. Learning your baby’s cues and needs is vital. I wouldn’t dream of imposing any timings, no matter how loose, on a newborn under 12 weeks of age. Over 12 weeks, when you start to see some patterns, it’s a great idea to note some rough timings and aim for a window either side of them. For instance if your baby always seems sleep around 10am, that would be a good time to try for a nap. I always say “aim for an hour’s window”. Half an hour either side. So, if their pattern is tiredness around 10am, aim to start trying for that nap (maybe by offering a feed, popping them in the sling, rocking and singing a song etc) around 9:30am to 10:30am. The same is true of bedtimes. Keep a loose window. That window does tend to get narrower as children grow into toddlers and preschoolers, but even then – there will be days when they’re just not tired (or hungry, if we’re talking dinner) at the regular time – that’s OK!
WHEN SHOULD YOU START A ROUTINE?
In a sense, you start routines from birth, you just don’t know it. Singing a certain song, using wipes, then cream, then putting on a new nappy – this is a routine! As is bath, moisturise, cuddles, feed and sleep. These routines tend to appear entirely naturally. From 12 weeks onwards, I advocate starting to introduce a little more structure, ie devising a specific bedtime routine (remember we’re talking doing the same things in the same order, not clock-watching!). Pre that, really – just try to enjoy the unpredictable beautiful chaos of the newborn period and resist any urges to try to control anything! In terms of timings, aim for that hour window, but don’t expect much regularity until 4 or 5 months onwards – and even then, flexibility is still key. Some babies will naturally settle into their own patterns and be very predictable from a very young age, some will take longer, but trying to find your own groove – together, is so much better than any prescribed schedule you may come across!
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