Amy Sumner's 3-month-old daughter, Mary Claire, was crying. And crying.
"I think she's hungry," said Amy's husband, Hall.
"But I just fed her an hour and 45 minutes ago," replied Amy, who was working to put her baby on the schedule described in a book her girlfriends had recommended. "The book says I can't feed her yet."
"You have to feed her!" said Hall above the wails. Amy finally gave in and nursed her little girl -- who was obviously very hungry -- going against the rules she was trying so hard to follow.
Soon after, Hall threw that book away. "It was probably the best thing he ever did, because it was making me a little crazy," admits Amy, who lives in Beaufort, South Carolina. Mary Claire is now a hearty 6-year-old. When a friend recently asked Amy whether her third child, 5-month-old Jack, was "on a good schedule," she had to stop and think whether he even had one. "So I started to write down his day and I realized that we did follow a routine. I just wasn't obsessing about it any more."
Child-development specialists tend to agree that babies thrive best on a routine. "Routines are comforting. They're a stabilizing force in the life of even a young infant," explains Will Wilkoff, M.D., a pediatrician in Brunswick, Maine. "He learns to expect pretty much the same things to happen at about the same time in the same place and with the same people." This regularity helps a baby to feel more secure, he says, and to gradually adjust his own body rhythms to predictable patterns for sleeping, eating, and activity -- which over time makes everyone's life easier. The first year of life is full of so many new experiences, being able to count on certain occurrences day in and day out is incredibly consoling for your baby.
But what kind of routine is best? The answer is less "by the book" than you might think -- and that should come as welcome news no matter what your parenting style. Good routines are as diverse as families are, and how you follow one is less important than that you simply do. Even so, most parents fall into one of three general camps. Read on to see which one suits you best and how you can tailor it to your needs and those of your baby.
Paula Spencer is a Babytalk contributing editor, a mother of four, and the author of five books on pregnancy and parenting.