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Routine Matters

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.

The structured routine

Some experts tout a fairly specific program. One popular example is the late "baby whisperer" Tracy Hogg's E.A.S.Y. (Eat, Activity, Sleep, Your time) plan, in which parents pace their baby through regular cycles of these events, repeating roughly every three hours. Like Hogg's plan, structured routines tend to feature sample schedules and suggested timetables. The controversial guide On Becoming Babywise, by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, M.D., takes structure a step further, recommending feeding by the clock.

benefits: What to do is all laid out there for you, which some moms may find less stressful than a blank slate.

drawbacks: Reality tends not to fit neatly into a chart on the printed page, causing frustration for some parents and children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that you breastfeed when your baby shows signs of hunger, not when the clock tells you to. "A lot of new parents are looking for a framework," says Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of the AAP's Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. "But then they take that framework to be an ideal that has to work the same way every time. That's not very real."

The baby-led routine

At the other end of the spectrum are routines in which the parents follow the baby's cues. One philosophy of parenting, called "attachment parenting," for example, features breastfeeding on demand (your baby's demand, that is), wearing your baby in a sling, and lying down with your baby to sleep when he seems tired. William Sears, M.D., author of The Attachment Parenting Book and The Baby Book (and also a Babytalk contributing editor), emphasizes responding to a baby's cues to shape her day rather than following rigid schedules.

benefits: It's fairly easy for many parents to do. Many babies love and respond well to all the extra attention and closeness.

drawbacks: Not all babies fall into good routines on their own, and some need a guiding structure from their parents. Some parents find this approach overly restrictive to their day or incompatible with the demands of work or older siblings.

The in-between routine

Many parents organize their baby's time so that the same things happen in approximately, not exactly, the same order every day, and around the family's other demands. "Rather than trying to enforce a one-size-fits-all or even a one-size-fits-most schedule, I think it makes more sense to come up with a rough blueprint for the day that's flexible enough to allow you to respond to your baby's needs as well as your own," says Ann Douglas, a parent educator and author of The Mother of All Baby Books. This kind of routine tends to be more casual than the structured-day approach, while more focused on the needs of Mom and the entire family than a baby-led approach.

benefits: All parents can find a routine to suit them and their baby. Mothers don't feel "trapped" by their baby's every demand.

drawbacks: Some infants do better on a schedule that's less laissez-faire; you may have to tinker for a while to find the happy medium that's best for you.

Not-so-routine questions

Before you choose a routine for you and your baby, or think about changing the one you already have, ask yourself these questions:

How old is your baby?
If a newborn's sleep and eating patterns don't seem very organized, there's good reason: They aren't. For a physiologically immature newborn, all you can do is make sure her basic needs are met. "Spend the first weeks watching, observing, hugging, holding, and loving," says Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
After a few weeks, you'll probably notice a loose pattern emerge, says Will Wilkoff, M.D., a pediatrician in Brunswick, Maine, that goes something like this: wake, feed, play, sleep. The intervals between these components may be two hours one time and four hours the next. That's a routine! You can gradually add your own elements, such as taking a walk every morning or giving a bath every night  -- small benchmarks that build predictability into your baby's day.
By about 4 months, a regular routine will probably have evolved. If not, you can introduce more structure into your baby's day at this point.

What's your baby's temperament?
Adaptability, or how a baby adjusts to change, is one of several elements that make up a child's temperament. "Some babies don't tolerate chaos well," Dr. Wilkoff notes. "Routines are much more important to them than to other babies. If you vary things too much, they will react." These less adaptable babies may prefer a more rigid schedule with few surprises. Base the level of structure in your routine on your baby's personality.

What's your own personality?
To some extent, the success of any given routine depends on what kind of person you are, too. "If you're a very orderly person who eats at 6 p.m. and goes out every Friday night, having a baby on the scene can seem chaotic; you might perceive your baby as more difficult than a different kind of parent would," says Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of the AAP's Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. "You may want your baby on more of a schedule than someone who is more laid-back."
But if a particular routine ups your stress or workload, it's not the solution for you, adds Ann Douglas, a parent educator and author of The Mother of All Baby Books. With her four kids, she steered clear of routines that involved "checking my watch or filling out sleep and food logs that are more detailed than any patient-care log you'd see on a pediatric ward."

What's going on today?
Even the best routines go haywire. Your older child's soccer game may begin right in the middle of your baby's nap, for example. Or if you have to be at work at 8 a.m. one day, it may not be possible to let your baby sleep as long as usual.
On top of fluctuating family events, babies change. They get sick, teethe, go through growth spurts that may make them sleep or eat more, or hit new developmental milestones. A new crawler, for example, may be too invigorated by his exciting new mobility to want to settle down for his customary two-hour nap.
No two days were exactly alike before you had a baby. You certainly can't expect them to unfold that way now. Give your routine plenty of room to breathe and evolve.