Your baby needs a routine just as much as you do. Every day brings him a host of brand-new experiences, and with all that novelty flooding his developing brain, a dependable schedule is very comforting. Here's how to create a routine that works for both of you.
When to start a routine
Don't even think about creating a routine for the first two months -- your infant is still adjusting to life outside the womb, and you need to take your cues from her for what she needs. Trying to keep a baby this age on a strict schedule can do more harm than good. For instance, you may end up making her go hungry too long, which could affect her weight and brain development. By 3 months, however, most babies can better follow a routine.
How to start
The first step: Pay attention to your baby's temperament and tendencies. Let him take the lead. 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. Then:
- Figure out when he tends to want to eat, sleep, or play by keeping a journal in which 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 and build a daily schedule from there.
- Use one routine to build on. If he goes to bed by 8 P.M., the rest of the day can fall into place around that: dinner at around 6 P.M., naps by 2:30 P.M., and lunch at about 12 P.M. If he 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 should build around.
- Make sure that between eating and sleeping, there's some time built in for free play. Your baby's activities don't need to be scheduled moment to moment. In fact, they shouldn't be -- he should have ample opportunity each day to explore and learn on his own.
Setting a bedtime ritual
Between 8 and 12 weeks, your baby may start sleeping long stretches at night -- anywhere from four to six hours -- because she won't need to eat as frequently. So at around 12 weeks, when sleep patterns become more regular, try to put her down for naps at the same time each day, and establish a solid bedtime routine -- bath, books, feeding, and a snuggle -- to help her realize it's time to sleep. Though it may be tempting, don't limit daytime siestas, hoping your baby will snooze longer at night. She could get overtired and actually have a much harder time falling and staying asleep.
Put her in the crib when she's drowsy, instead of waiting until you've rocked or nursed her to sleep, so that she'll learn how to nod off on her own. Before you know it, you'll both be getting more quality shut-eye.
If your baby is teething or experiencing some change, he's likely to shift off schedule. Ditto if you put him in a different environment-say, Grandpa's house. Even 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. Ways to lessen the damage:
Stick to what you can. If you know in advance that a certain day will be different from most -- you had to schedule a doctor visit during an afternoon naptime -- preserve whatever normal patterns you can. Feed your baby his favorite foods at the regular times or read his favorite books while you snuggle in the customary chair. Despite the difference in one part of his day, the rest of it will still seem familiar.
Break out his lovey. Are you on a long car trip, or are there guests in the house? Make sure your baby's preferred teddy or blanket is nearby. Even if he's not attached to something specific, a familiar toy or something that smells like you will be comforting.
Make a new place feel like home. If your baby's used to sleeping with a nightlight, bring one along to Grandma's. Does he like a few crackers after his bottle? Pack some in your suitcase: Little things matter.
Just keep in mind that as your baby grows, his needs will change. He'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.
Advice for working moms
You can't realistically work your schedule around your baby's all the time. And that's fine. You have to leave at a certain time to get to work, and evenings have to adjust to your work hours, too. Keep that in mind as you figure out when everyone needs to be up in the morning so you can work in some downtime with your baby before you leave. And if you're getting her up early in the morning, she may be ready to go down for the night by 6:30 or so. That doesn't leave you much time for anything but a quick dinner and a bath between the time you get home and when she goes to bed. But if she's wiped out at the end of the day, don't keep her up to spend more time together. Plan to snuggle with an extra book in the morning instead.
You may have to try out a few different routines with your baby before you find what works best. But the benefits are well worth the effort. You'll both be happy and comforted knowing what to expect each day.