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4 Most Important Baby Routines

Babies are creatures of habit -- and that's a good thing. Predictable routines make life easier for everyone, and help forge parent-child bonds, says Karen Ruskin, Psy.D., author of The 9 Key Techniques for Raising Respectful Children Who Make Responsible Choices. "Babies develop a sense of safety and trust when they have good, solid routines," she says. "They know what's going to happen next, and that helps them thrive." Those feelings of love and security will stick with your child for years to come, say the experts. Take a look at four routines you can begin now -- and why they're so important.

Eating: Satisfaction is Served
Why it matters Your baby spends a lot of time eating -- he'll 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.
Your best bet As soon as your baby shows signs of hunger (rooting, fussing), sit in a cozy spot with a drink of water, a nursing pillow and soft music playing. "If your baby is easily distracted when nursing, you might try going in a quiet room with the lights low," says Jim Sears, M.D., author of The Baby Book. "The baby can predict, 'Oh, we're moving to a dim room -- it's time to eat now.'" Don't watch television or catch up on email while baby nurses; by doing so, you're telling him he's not important to you.
Don't freak out if ? Your baby doesn't eat every three hours, on the dot. "A routine isn't the same thing 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." Most experts including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agree that breastfeeding on demand is the way to go, especially during the first few weeks of baby's life when you're establishing your milk supply.

Playing: Focus on the Fun
Why it matters Even very young babies need gentle playtime in their day. They really are little sponges, and that's when they soak up their world: investigating fingers and toes, toys and blankets. They'll be more secure learning if playtime feels routine and familiar.
Your best bet Engage your older baby in play when she's at her most alert and active (usually after eating). Try gentle stimulation: read to her, show her new toys and allow her wiggle time on the floor. Don't use these moments to tidy the room or talk on the phone, says Ruskin. "Be present with your baby -- not in a frenzy, as if this is one more thing on the to-do list," she says.
Don't freak out if ? Your baby seems to have a super-short attention span -- that's normal! "Five to 10 minutes of playtime is plenty for a young baby," says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. "They are very sensitive to colors, lights and noise; they will start rolling their eyes and looking overwhelmed when they've had enough."

Bathing: Don't Be Wishy-Washy
Why it matters The bath time routine can be a refreshing morning wakeup or a prelude to a good night's sleep -- depending on whether he finds a bath stimulating or relaxing.
Your best bet Your baby's temperament and your own schedule will determine the best time of day for a bath, says Ruskin. Keep that time more or less consistent, and bathe your baby when you aren't rushed; handling a wet, wiggly infant can feel 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. That may startle her," says Ruskin. "Gently take off his clothes, and keep talking in a soothing voice the whole time you're bathing him."
Don't freak out if ? Your baby doesn't love the bath right away. Getting undressed and wet can feel cold and uncomfortable to them, and many babies get spooked at first. 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, according to the AAP.

Sleeping: The ABCs of Zzzs
Why it matters Getting baby to bed is probably the most important routine of the day. You'll end up with a more consistent sleeper -- and a happier household -- if you stick with the same routine night after night.
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 that she's getting sleepy: droopy eyelids, yawning, rubbing her eyes, and becoming cranky or fidgety. An hour or so before bedtime, start the routine -- it could include a bath, some light massage, a lullaby, dim lights and a snuggle with a book. "Make sure you read something calm in a soothing voice," says Dr. Sears. "This isn't the best time to do your wild and crazy Dr. Seuss reading."

Don't freak out if ? Your baby falls asleep nursing during the early months. While it's a good idea for babies to learn to soothe themselves, it's not worth the stress of trying to keep baby awake.