Schedules and Routines for Babies: Do They Really Work?
New moms are often torn between putting their baby on a schedule immediately and completely winging it from the get-go. But what works? Here’s the run-down.
“In the beginning the baby has been getting 24/7 nutrition from mom in utero, and then the baby is born and still needs to eat frequently to keep blood sugar up and keep jaundice at bay, so infants need to eat every 2-3 hours,” says Karen M. Wheeler, MD, a pediatrician at Indiana University Health. And that includes during the night. Not only do babies need nutrition overnight, but if you’re breastfeeding, you need to keep nursing your child to ensure that your milk supply is increasing. “If you try and put a baby on a schedule, it will just lead to frustration,” says Dr. Wheeler. “It’s a baby centered world at first.” Everything is on demand. Even bottle-fed babies need to eat every 3-4 hours, even at night.
When is it time to stop the night-time feeding? “When your pediatrician says weight gain is steady and good,” says Dr. Wheeler. She says this can happen between 4-8 months. When this happens, you can start putting your baby on a routine to skip the night time feeding. Give four ounces instead of six, then go down to two, then stop the night time feeding altogether. “You need to teach the baby to unlearn the habit, that 3am is a good time to eat.”
What about naps and nighttime sleeping? “It’s impossible to put little babies on a schedule; they take lots of 20-30 minute deep-sleep naps for first few months of life,” says Dr. Wheeler. At six months, you can put baby on a morning and afternoon nap schedule. They will probably sleep about 1-2 hours at each nap. Between 12-18 months you can transition to one nap in the middle of the day (she’ll probably sleep between 1-3 hours). In terms of what time to put your baby to bed and what time your baby will get up, every child has a different circadian rhythm. Watch for those tell-tale signs that your baby is sleepy: rubbing eyes, yawning. You can start a routine, book, bath, song, bed and soon your little one will start to realize, and enjoy, the pattern.
“The benefits of activities like swimming and gymnastics start at 18 months,” says Dr. Wheeler. Until then, babies really just need to be read to daily and parents need to get on the floor with kids and play, but a set schedule is really more for toddlers than babies. However, one thing babies do need is tummy time, every day. This insures that they will gain strength and flexibility, especially in their neck muscles. A lot of moms sign their babies up for mommy and me classes—which is fine—but the benefits are often more for the mental health of the mom (which, of course, is important). So it’s fine to wing it, and not schedule play for infants. Of course, it is good for both moms and babies to get sunshine and fresh air on a daily basis, so make sure you include a walk or enjoying the backyard as much as you can.
-- By Judy Koutsky