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.
Tamara Jeffries is a contributing editor for Health and a contributing writer for Essence. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.