For the first months after we brought our new daughter home from the hospital, I was thankful to see the sun come up each morning—in part because that's the only way I knew day from night. Like most new moms, I was struggling to adapt to Infant Standard Time, in which 3 a.m. was a perfectly normal hour for our entire household to be awake. Mali's nap schedule looked something like this:
Day 1—11:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.
Day 2—10:30 a.m. to 10:37 a.m.; 1:17 p.m. to 1:23 p.m.; 5:15 p.m. to 7:48 p.m.
Day 3—No nap. Fussing and fretting instead.
I'd spend each day asking myself, Is it time for her to nurse again? When did I last change her diaper? I was exhausted, confused, and constantly faced with my poor mothering skills.
You have to get her on a schedule, well-meaning parents suggested—even those who naturally tended to go with the flow. Routine is good for children, the books said. It did make sense that some order would be as soothing for me as it would be for my baby. After all, imagine what it must be like for infants. Every day brings new experiences: blades of grass, ringing phones, a bird—all major phenomena if you've never experienced them before. With all that novelty flooding a developing brain, it's logical that some sameness (a reliable naptime, a regular bath ritual) would be comforting.
I wanted that security for Mali. But I couldn't get organized enough to take a shower. How would I get this squirming bundle of urgent, erratic demands to follow a routine? It took a bit of trial and error, but we finally backed into one that works, most of the time. And if we could handle it, you can, too.
Watch for patterns
The first thing to do is give yourself a break. "From birth to two months, just throw the whole concept of scheduling out the window," says Ari Brown, M.D., coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year. Your infant is going to reverse day and night; she's going to sleep through feedings and feed when you think she should be sleeping. She's still trying to adjust to the world outside the womb. Trying to get a little baby to adhere to a timetable is a recipe for frustration.
In fact, schedules that are too strict can actually be harmful, especially to infants, according to Sherry Reinhardt, head of Support Services for Mothers, a collective of support groups in the San Francisco area. Trying to keep a baby this age on a feeding schedule that doesn't allow her to eat whenever she's hungry could slow her weight gain and brain development. If you're watching the clock ("It's ten a.m.—two hours until lunchtime!"), you may miss the clues to her actual needs ("I barely ate at breakfast; I'm hungry now").
By 3 or 4 months, however, a baby's internal rhythms emerge more clearly. "Their systems are more organized," Reinhardt says. Paying attention to your baby's own natural temperament and tendencies is the first step in adding order to her day. Think "routine" or "pattern" instead of "schedule"—and let your baby take the lead.
Build the routine
Babies know how to let you know when they're hungry, tired, need attention or need some quiet time—even if it's only by squalling at the top of their lungs.
Your job is to figure out when your baby tends to want to eat, sleep or play, then attend to his needs before he realizes he's hungry, tired or bored.
If you're seeing obvious cues—the aforementioned squall, say—you're reacting instead of reinforcing a routine.
A good way to get in touch with your baby's body clock is to keep a journal, where you can note when he starts fussing to nurse or shows signs of sleepiness, as well as what times of the day he's most alert. Then you can begin to anticipate his needs in advance and build a daily schedule from there. If you notice that he starts clamoring for food at 11:00 in the morning, for instance, you can start preparing to nurse him a little before that.
Gena Flynn of Ann Arbor, Michigan, noticed her son Jacob would start rubbing his eyes at around 8:30 every night. By the time he was 7 months old, she'd developed a regular bedtime routine around it. "Every night, I run the bath, read him a book, feed him his bottle then he's off to bed," she says. She begins at about 7:30 p.m., so by 8:30 he's already curled up with his favorite stuffed toy and ready to be tucked in.What's the most important part of the schedule? It depends on your baby and your situation. A regular bedtime is the Holy Grail for most moms, because it's often the hardest routine to establish (and the one they most desperately want to put in place). But if your baby isn't eating well or gaining weight, you'll want to make mealtimes your priority. If you have to get him ready for an early commute to daycare, the morning ritual is the one you'll need to focus on.
One routine will often build on another. Mimi Thomas, a Beltsville, Maryland, mom of three, started by establishing a sleep routine for her first baby. She wanted to have her in bed by 8:30 p.m., so she built her schedule backward based on that: dinner needed to be at around 6:30 p.m., which meant naps should be taken by 3 p.m., which put lunch at about 12:30 p.m.
Fine-tuning and tweaking
As your baby grows, her needs will change. She'll go from nursing every three hours to eating three square meals a day; constant sleep will turn into several daily naps and then only one afternoon nap a day. Each small shift may require a revision of your routine. For instance, one less nap during the day may mean your baby will need to go to bed at 6:30 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.
If the family's traveling, or if the baby is teething or otherwise experiencing some change, she's likely to shift off schedule. A bout with a cold can throw off bedtime and naps, and you may have to start all over with the routine when your baby is well again. Fortunately, it only takes a few days to get back on track.
Of course, there are times when the schedule has to be firm. If you're a working mom, unless you have in-home child care, your child will have to adjust to a routine that allows you to get out of the house on time. Even so, you can be flexible about how the morning flows before you go. That may mean getting everyone up a little earlier to give yourself some wiggle room. It may mean your baby goes to daycare in pajamas with her breakfast in a thermos.
You'll need to take that morning schedule into account in the evening, too. "If you're getting your baby up early in the morning, she may be ready to go down for the night by six thirty or so," says Dr. Brown. That doesn't leave you much time for anything but a quick dinner and a bath between the time you pick her up and when she goes to bed. "If your child is wiped out at the end of the day, don't keep her up just because you want to see her," she advises. "She's going to be a lot happier if you put her down."
Reaping the rewards
The good news is that "schedule" can mean different things to different families, and everyone agrees that there's no best way to set one up. The bad news is that there's no best way to set one up. So you may have to try a few things to see what's ideal for you and your baby.
"Our routines don't always work. But when they do work, they are priceless ways to maintain order in our home," says Donna Maria Coles Johnson, a Charlotte, North Carolina, mother of two.
For Mimi Thomas, the benefit of a schedule is no more whining. "The girls are just less fussy. Now things are more organized and calmer," she says.
There are some less obvious benefits, too. Establishing a daily routine with Mali helped me feel less frazzled, so I became better able to pay attention to her needs. I felt more empowered as a parent, and it also helped my husband and me to communicate better about her care: He "owns" parts of the schedule (dinner and bathtime) and can ease right into the routine when he gets home.
On days when our routine flows fluidly from one activity to the next, we all move together like one cozy unit. Mali's more content; I'm more relaxed. And that makes Daddy happy. Routine has been very good for all of us.
Tamara Jeffries is a contributing editor for Health and a contributing writer for Essence. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.