Should baby schedules be shunned or embraced? Toddlers love routines, but what about babies? Like so many child-rearing issues, there’s more than one right answer.
Scheduling is a modern concept. The ancients didn’t feed babies according to the time on the sundial or make baby nap schedules. But staying organized can be a lifesaver for today’s moms and can help a baby adopt a schedule that works better for the family.
Of course, rigid schedules that ignore a baby’s cries are unnatural and unloving. But flexible baby schedules–that set approximate times for feeding and sleep–can work quite well.
Two Simple Scheduling Tweaks Boost Sleep
A study of breastfed babies found that 2 simple scheduling tweaks yielded a big improvement in sleep in the first 2 months:
- Waking up for a “dream feed” between 10 p.m. and midnight.
- Responding to nighttime cries with a few minutes of holding or a diaper change before feeding.
Within 3 weeks, 100% of babies were sleeping 5-hour stretches with these 2 steps, versus 23% of infants where no scheduling was tried.
The Benefits of a Baby Schedule
When you think about it, the benefit of flexible schedules isn’t a huge surprise since babies are learning experts! Even before birth, your baby starts recognizing your voice and favorite music. So learning the pattern of feeding and sleeping is not above her pay grade.
Some experts advise an “eat, play, sleep” schedule. They hope that by using a little play to separate eating from sleeping (rather than always feeding before sleep) will help babies learn to fall asleep without a feeding–when they wake at 2 a.m.
This sounds logical, but it actually goes against your baby’s biology. Infants get sleepy after feedings, no matter how much you prod and play with them. Also, before bedtime, you want to fill your little guy’s tummy to prolong his sleep.
Tips for Setting Up a Baby Schedule
If you are going to try scheduling, I suggest you wait about a month (until feeding is going really well), then do the following:
- Carry your baby a lot during the day to help him learn the difference between day and night.
- During the day, feed your love bug every 1.5-2 hours, then put him to sleep. (Start the nap before he’s yawning and looking droopy eyed.)
- If he naps over 2 hours, wake him for his next play/feed period. Long naps cause less daytime eating and more hunger at night.
- Feed him in a quiet room so he doesn’t get distracted and refuse to eat.
- Turn the white noise on–and the lights down–20 minutes before naps and bedtime. This quiets your baby’s nervous system and gives a clear signal that sleepy time is coming. Use the wake-and-sleep technique to help him learn to self soothe.
- Wake your baby for a “dream feed” between ten P.M. and midnight every night to fill his stomach and prepare him for a longer sleep period.
A flexible eating and sleeping schedule can be super-helpful if you have twins, other kids, you’re a single parent, or you’re working out of the house. But, the key word is flexible. If you’re planning a 1:00 p.m. nap, but your little guy is exhausted at 12:30, it’s fine to bend the “rules.” Just feed him and put him down early. And if he gets hungry before his “scheduled” feeding time, try distracting him, but respond with promptness and love if the fussing persists, and return to the schedule later.
Note: Rigid schedules (you never deviate even if your baby is crying with hunger) are contrary to our natural instincts, make us constantly watch the clock, and lead to underfed babies.
A Bedtime Routine Will Help Your Baby Schedule
Follow the same reassuring routine every night:
- Low lights
- Soft white noise in the background
- Toasty bath
- Loving massage with warm oil
- Yummy milk
- Cozy swaddle
- A soft lullaby
Within a week, these will begin to work like hypnosis. As you start the routine your baby will think, Wow, I’m sleepy already!
Related: A Sleep Schedule for Your Baby's 1st Year