Babies are creatures of habit — and that's good. While predictability can be a death knell for some relationships (dinner and a movie again?), knowing what and when something will happen actually helps forge those priceless parent-child bonds while making life easier all around. “Babies develop a sense of safety and trust when they have good, solid routines,” says Karen Ruskin, author of The 9 Key Techniques for Raising Respectful Children Who Make Responsible Choices. “It helps them thrive.” Those feelings of love and security will stick with your child for years.
Even if you take a “go with the flow” approach to your day, establishing a rhythm to the daily activities of eating, sleeping and even bathing can go a long way toward creating a calmer household for everyone (even Fido!).
Satisfaction is Served
Your baby will be happier and more relaxed if he learns early on that when he's hungry, you feed him. And if you're breastfeeding, your milk supply will be more consistent if you stick to a regular routine. “It's supply and demand,” says Colette M. Acker, executive director at the Breastfeeding Resource Center in Abington, Pennsylvania. “If the baby takes milk out, the body will replenish it.”
When baby is ready for solids, include him in the family meal. A recent study in Pediatrics says kids who regularly sit down with their parents at mealtimes are less likely to be overweight and more likely to eat a diet rich in nutrients. There's no reason to wait, says child nutrition expert Jill Castle R.D., owner of Pediatric Nutrition of Green Hills in Nashville, Tennessee. “Pull up her highchair, and give her a spot at the table as soon as you begin spoon feeding,” she says. “A lot of learning goes on at family meals.”
Your Best Bet
As soon as your baby shows signs of hunger (rooting, fussing), sit in a cozy spot with a nursing pillow (great for bottle feeding too) and soft music playing. “If your baby is easily distracted when nursing, you might try going into a quiet room with the lights low,” says Jim Sears M.D., co-author of The Baby Book. “The baby can predict, ‘Oh, we're moving to a dim room — it's time to eat now.’”
When nursing or bottle feeding, watch for baby's cues he's full, such as nibbling rather than long, drawn-out sucking or looking super relaxed, says Christine Wood M.D., a pediatrician in Encinitas, California. “Honor these cues during infancy to help baby learn self-regulation,” Dr. Wood says. Down the road, “this could help prevent obesity.”
Don't freak out if your baby doesn't eat every three hours. “A routine isn't the same as a schedule,” says Dr. Sears. “You want to strive for consistency, for a pattern in what you do rather than stick to a rigid timetable.” It's OK to free yourself from the rigidity of feedings every day at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., but follow the same patterns at each feeding so baby knows what comes next. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding on demand, especially during the first few weeks of baby's life when you're establishing your milk supply.
The ABCs of Zzz
Getting baby to bed is probably the most important routine of the day. You'll have a more consistent sleeper and happier household if you stick with the same routine night after night. Babies love predicability!
Your Best Bet
Between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. tends to be a drowsy time for babies, when they're most likely to go down for a good night's sleep, says Dr. Sears, adding that if you let your baby become overtired, you may have a tougher time getting her to bed. Watch for signs she's getting sleepy, such as rubbing her eyes and becoming cranky. An hour or so before bedtime, start the routine — it could include a bath, a lullaby, dim lights, snuggling and reading. “Make sure you read something calm in a soothing voice,” says Dr. Sears. “This isn't the time to do your wild and crazy Dr. Seuss reading.” It doesn't matter what you do as long as you follow the same sleep-lulling steps most nights.
Don't freak out if your baby falls asleep nursing during the early months; it's common and there's no harm done. However, between 2 and 6 months old, he should no longer fall asleep with breast or bottle in his mouth. “This trains him to want stimulation to go back to sleep when he wakes during the night,” says Dr. Wood, who stresses the importance of forming good sleep habits early. “I advise parents to put babies down when they are semi-awake so they can learn to fall asleep on their own.”
Fun in the Tub
The bathtime routine can be a refreshing wake-up or a prelude to a good night's sleep, depending on if he finds a bath stimulating or relaxing. It's not just about how it makes him feel; it's also a great time to bond.
Your Best Bet
Baby's temperament and your schedule will determine the best time of day for a bath. Keep that time more or less consistent, and bathe your baby when you aren't rushed; handling a wet, wiggly infant can be stressful to new parents. Have tub, shampoo, body wash, lotion, towel and diaper arranged before you even undress him. “Don't just plop the baby in the water,” says Ruskin. “Gently take off his clothes, and talk in a soothing voice while you're bathing him.” And since eye contact and touch are key to bonding, bathing serves double duty — a great activity for dads.
Don't freak out if your baby doesn't love the bath right away. Getting undressed and wet can feel cold and uncomfortable to babies. If he really seems upset by the tub, stick with a warm sponge bath for a few weeks. Keep in mind that babies, and especially newborns, do not need to be bathed every day, says the AAP. Every other day is plenty.