Getting into a regular schedule for sleep, feeding, and activities can make life easier for you and your baby. But how to start? Below, find seven great guidelines for establishing a routine that works.
Get your baby used to a bedtime routine early on
Once you have a consistent bedtime worked out, a daytime routine will fall into place, says Tanya Remer Altmann, a pediatrician and editor-in-chief of The Wonder Years: Helping Your Baby and Young Child Successfully Negotiate the Major Developmental Milestones.
And the easiest way to establish a regular bedtime is to start a bedtime routine that you and your baby can depend on night after night.
"The bedtime routine is the most important thing to consider when establishing a schedule," says Altmann. "You can't force it in the first few months, but you can start practicing at around 2 months."
Altmann says to keep it simple: a warm bath, jammies, a feeding, then lights-out. It's fine if feeding lulls your baby to sleep in the early months, Altmann says, but by 3 or 4 months you may want to try putting him down awake so he'll learn to fall asleep on his own.
Teach your baby the difference between night and day
Many babies mix up their days and nights at first, sleeping long stretches during the day only to perk up once the sun goes down. Helping your baby learn to tell day from night is a key first step to getting into a workable routine.
Amy Shelley, mom to 8-month-old Alex, offers these tips: "During the day, keep the house bright. Do the exact opposite at night: Keep the house dim and quiet. Don't talk to your baby much during night feedings. Let him learn that night is for sleeping and daytime is for socialization and playtime."
Learn to read your baby's cues
Websites, books, your baby's doctor, and other parents can all help as you figure out an appropriate schedule for your baby. But your child will be an important guide, and he'll tell you what he needs – if you learn to read his cues.
"When parents take the time to be with their baby, the information they receive gets sifted through their own experience. 'Instincts' come from learning about your baby's temperament and what works for him," says pediatrician Daniel Levy, president of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland.
Mom Liana Scott says paying close attention to 9-month-old Keaton has helped her anticipate his needs, which makes life easier and more fun for both of them.
"Now I'm able to feed him before he's really hungry and put him to bed before he's overtired and fussy," says Scott.
Learning what your baby needs when takes time and patience. But you'll see patterns emerge over time. And if you log your baby's naps, feedings, playtime, and so on in a notebook or on the computer, you can use this record to come up with a timetable for doing things.
When starting out, put your baby's schedule first
If you're encouraging your baby to follow a schedule or observing his patterns to figure out a routine that works, make this process a top priority for at least the first couple of weeks. Avoid deviating from the routine with vacations, meals on the go, outings that push naptime back, and so on.
Once you establish a pattern for your baby's sleeping, awake, and feeding times, changing things for an afternoon isn't likely to undo his habits. But it's best to keep your baby's schedule as consistent as possible while he's getting used to it.
Expect changes during growth spurts and milestones
Your child accomplishes so much in the first year. He'll nearly triple his weight and achieve some major feats like sitting up, crawling, even walking.
During periods of growth or when he's working to achieve a new milestone, don't be surprised if your baby diverges from his usual routine. He may be hungrier than usual, need more sleep, or return to waking up several times a night. Hang in there – your baby may be back on schedule shortly, or this may be a sign that you need to adjust your routine.
Adjust your baby's schedule to suit his age
It may feel like just when you've gotten into a predictable groove with your little one, it's time to change it again. As your baby gets older, he'll need fewer daytime naps and more playtime and stimulation. He'll also need to eat solid foods – first just once a day, but eventually several times a day.
As these developmental shifts happen, your child's schedule will shift as well. Reading up on these milestones and checking out our sample schedule for babies of all ages can help you know what to expect.
Don't expect perfection
Some parent-led schedules set the expectation that your baby's routine will always run like clockwork. And though babies do like consistency, you can expect changes from day to day and as your baby grows.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, your baby will want to skip a nap, have an extra snack, wake up before dawn, and so on. And life happens as well – vacations, older siblings, plans with friends and family, errands you need to take care of, and other factors will all come into play in your daily life with your baby. Variation is okay, as long as your baby is getting the sleep, play, food, care, and love he needs to thrive.