Should my baby have a routine?
This is a question I get asked a lot, especially when it comes to baby sleep. And although it seems a simple question, there is a lot to unpack here because ‘routine’ can many many different things.
At its most simple, a routine is a predictable set of repeated events, and this is widely accepted as important for babies. Offering a predictable environment allows them to feel comfortable and confident as they find their way in the world.
But their continuous development means babies by their very nature are always changing, which means their routine needs to be flexible. This may seem contradictory, but it’s the most important point - inflexible routines have great potential to cause babies and parents a lot of grief.
Let’s get one thing sorted, babies don’t need a routine imposed upon them. They need predictability and flexibility.
Newborns and sleep routines
After birth, babies don’t do anything predictably. They have irregular eating, waking and sleeping patterns that are changing all the time as they develop at a rapid rate.
Some popular writers argue that you should enforce a routine early on to avoid problems later. This is often called sleep training, but at this stage of life it isn’t appropriate to impose a strict routine on a baby because it’s not normal. The routine itself can cause so many sleep problems.
Sleep patterns will always change (unfortunately)
Some newborns bless their parents with predictable sleep patterns and some don’t. But all babies go through natural developmental stages, and this is when their patterns will become unpredictable - they’ll be more irritable and getting them off to sleep will be more difficult.
It’s not fun (in fact it’s unspeakably exhausting!) but it’s all a very normal part of development.
Your desire for a routine is understandable
As a parent, the quest for predictable and extended periods of sleep is perfectly understandable. Often our desire to have some control in the day, and some respite, means we fixate on our babies sleeping.
The exhaustion that comes with interrupted sleep overnight as well as the unending task of getting them to take multiple naps during the day means sleep (or the lack of sleep) dominates every day and night.
But imposing a pattern is not the answer, even if it feels like the best idea in the short term.
Sleep training interrupts development
By training a baby into routines we are forcing them out of their natural growth and development behaviours. Some say routine is necessary to ensure baby sleep, but having worked with literally thousands of families, I can assure you babies without ‘training’ do perfectly fine.
In fact, in our pursuit of sleep we can unintentionally cause a baby to be more unsettled at sleep time, and therefore cause a sleep problem that didn’t initially exist.
Don’t force a routine - find a rhythm
What babies need is a rhythm that supports their natural cycles. When they’re tired it’s sleep time, when they’re hungry it’s feeding time and when they’re awake and engaged it’s time to chat.
If you’re tempted to get your baby into a routine, try following their natural cues. Through behaviours and cues your baby will give you the direction you need and you can start to find the predictability in each day.
Overtime, without training, you will see a pattern emerge that is very similar to the imposed routines. Be guided by your baby rather than a schedule or a clock.
Keep it flexible, mindful, caring
Many studies have found that predictability and anticipation is calming for babies. For example, when your baby is tired and you dim the lights, sing a lullaby and give them a cuddle, they’re more able to fall asleep.
But if they’re overtired, then this may not be enough. The normal predictable behaviours may not be enough and they may need more help to get off to sleep. Also, they may wake more overnight or earlier than normal.
Every day will be different, and so it’s important to watch for different signs and cues so you can offer your baby what they need in each moment. It’s not about watching the clock and relying on rigid time schedules, but being mindful of your baby.
One last thing
If you’re thinking of training your baby into a strict routine, please remember that this is a very short period of time. Your baby is developing and soon they will establish a daily pattern that works with their physical needs.
Soon their natural pattern will resemble the pattern that you want to achieve through ‘training’ now.
And yes, they may move in and out of this pattern, and sometimes they will be unpredictable, irritable or hard to get to sleep. But this is a sign of the phenomenal development they’re experiencing. And they will soon move back into a natural groove again.
It’s not easy and we’re here to help
Living with a new baby and learning how to help them through their first year can be amazingly challenging and exhausting.
Please get in touch with us if you’d like more info any help.
Helen’s books also have great ideas on predictable daily routines that are respectful of your baby’s behaviours and development.
Author: Helen Stevens. RN. RM. MCHN. Manager of Clinical Services, Education and Research.
Parent Infant Consultants. 0411880720.