In the first few weeks and months of parenthood, many are shocked by just how hostage one is kept by a little mouth, demanding to be fed every couple of hours. This doesn't bear any resemblance to the routines and schedules a person managed to keep prior to the birth of the baby. Just as you feel you understand your baby’s routines and needs, everything changes again.
- Also see: BABY HOW TO: Our handy guide to babies!
Two main routines in the day
There are two main events that punctuate your day: feeding your baby and when your baby sleeps. These are the two events that many parents want to start to structure into some type of routine. Remember each baby is an individual and some may develop routines much earlier than others. If your baby was very small, born prematurely, is not gaining weight or is a high needs baby, these routines may only emerge later.
- Also see: Routine matters
Feeding needs to be on a demand basis for the first 6 weeks. This is important for your baby's weight gain as well as the establishment of your breast milk supply. But as your baby gets older and your milk becomes established or if you are bottle feeding, a feeding routine of 3 to 4 hour feeds will emerge (usually from about 3 months on). Remember even at this stage, a growth spurt could signal a period of feeds that are closer together and less predictable. By six months when your baby is on a solids diet it is easier to implement a more predictable feeding routine.
- Also see: Finding my baby routine groove
Sleep is an area where routine and consistency are important. Like adults, babies have their in-built time clocks and physical needs, however these needs differ substantially from yours. Where adults only need 8 hours sleep a night, babies need anywhere from 18 or 20 hours for a newborn to 14 hours for a toddler, per 24 hour cycle.
Babies' sleep habits differ from adults in that they have period of time we call awake times, which are periods of time in which your baby can be happily awake. During this time he will be happy and interactive, learning from his environment. If this period is stretched, in other words your baby is kept awake for longer than his ideal awake time, he will become needy, easily over stimulated and generally irritable. In addition to this he will not naturally fall into a sleepy state and thus will be more difficult to get to sleep.
It is not a good idea to adhere to rigid, prescribed routines for young babies as these force babies to sleep at your convenience or at a predetermined time each day. If this time happens to be before his awake time is up, he won't want to fall asleep. But more commonly it is once he is overtired and the natural lull in his states has been missed. So being overtired and needy he is significantly more difficult to get to sleep.
- Also see: Safe sleeping
Avoid too rigid a regime
An example of a rigid routine that is a recipe for an irritable baby and highly anxious parent is one where a 2-week-old baby is forced to have a morning sleep at 9am, having woken at 7am. This would mean he must stay awake for two hours. The ideal 'awake time' for newborns is an hour at the most. Waiting two hours, just to stick to a predetermined time makes no sense, as newborns literally can't cope being awake this long. Furthermore, the baby may have woken at 6am in which case it would be a 3 hour stretch which is a recipe for a very irritable baby.
A baby-centric approach would be to have the guidelines of 'awake time' for each developmental age, as found in Baby Sense and then more importantly to learn to read your baby's signals. Practically this would entail watching the clock to see what time your baby woke and then make sure to watch that your baby goes down according to his 'awake times'. In addition to this you should watch for your own specific baby’s signals. Signals that your baby is tired include rubbing eyes, sucking hands, touching ears, looking into space, drowsy eyes or many other self soothing strategies. When your baby shows the signs of drowsiness, he should be put down to sleep.
In this way, the baby dictates his sleep times in 2 ways: firstly according to developmental norms and then according to his own capacity for interactions, by signaling when he is tired. Being tuned to your own baby's needs will help you to put your baby down more easily and in that way establish healthy day sleep routines.
The best piece of advice for parents of new babies is to put your expectations behind you and to know that this early stage of unpredictable routine disappears faster that you would believe.
Have you gotten your baby into a routine or still struggling? What's your approach to a routine relaxed or all hands on deck? Tell us by emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org and we could publish your letter.
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