Routine matters

The familiar world of schedules and timing does not fit with newborns, who have little sense of routine and do not follow a set of rules.

Since parenting frequently happens in a relative vacuum - without extended family to help out - new mums experience isolation and loneliness. Even when support systems are good, many women find advice contradictory and unhelpful. What works one day may not work the next and patterns are hard to establish in the early days.

There is no question that when babies do start to settle into a semblance of routine, life gets easier. It becomes easier to read your baby’s signals and to predict his needs when there is predictability in the day. When a baby fits seamlessly into a routine, life becomes more settled and easier for mum. The problem is that not all babies fit a specific routine and trying to instill schedules can create more anxiety for you. So is there a way to read your baby that will make for an easy transition into predictable days?

Awake times
Like adults, babies have their in-built time clocks and physical needs, however these needs differ substantially from their parents’. Where adults only need 8 hours of sleep a night, babies need anywhere from 18 or 20 hours in a day for a newborn, to 14 hours for a toddler.

Babies have period of time we call awake times, which are periods of time in which they can be happily awake. During this time they will be happy and interactive, learning from their environment. If this period is stretched, in other words the 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.

Where routine goes wrong
Where rigid, prescribed routines go wrong, is that the baby is forced to sleep at his mother’s convenience or at a predetermined time each day. If this 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.

An example of a rigid routine that is a recipe for an irritable baby and highly anxious mother is one where a 2 week old baby must 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. And the baby may have woken at 6am in which case it would be a three hour stretch which is a recipe for a very irritable baby.

Learn to read your baby
A baby-centric approach would be to have the guidelines of ‘awake time’ for each developmental age, as found in my book Baby Sense --  and then learn to read the baby’s signals.

  • See what time the baby woke and then make sure to watch that he goes down according to his ‘awake times’.
  • Watch for your own specific baby’s signals. Signals that a 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 two ways: firstly according to developmental norms and then by signaling when he or she is tired. Being tuned to her own baby’s needs will help a mom to put her baby down more easily and in that way establish healthy baby-centric day sleep routines.

Should babies have a set routine? Or do you think they should dictate the day’s schedule?

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