Aubrey Cichelli's life revolves around her nine-month-old son's schedule. "I avoid running errands or making doctor's appointments near Jackson's naptimes or mealtimes," explains the mom from Salt Lake City. That's not all: Aubrey and her husband often skip the first half of their Sunday church service because it interferes with their son's morning nap. "We miss things occasionally," she says. "But, at the same time, his schedule keeps me sane."
While Aubrey may seem a bit more extreme than most moms, experts agree that having a regular routine can be good for your child. "Babies thrive on consistency, and they like knowing what comes next," says Michael Wasserman, M.D., a pediatrician at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation, in New Orleans. And being able to predict when your little one will be hungry or need a nap can be good for you too. "If the day follows a pattern, Mom knows when she'll have time to squeeze in a shower or even just open the mail," says Parents adviser Mark Widome, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University, in Hershey. "This can help her feel less stressed and more in control of her day."
That said, schedules aren't for everybody. "It all depends on your parenting style and your baby's temperament," Dr. Widome says. "Some babies naturally eat and sleep at the same times each day; others will resist a set routine." While parents of multiples often find they must synchronize their babies' days for efficiency's sake, moms and dads with older kids may discover that a rigid plan doesn't work for them. "Remember, a schedule is just a rough guideline," Dr. Wasserman says. "The key is to be flexible and find what works best for your family."
You may be eager to get your newborn started on a schedule, but unfortunately, you can't. "For the first six weeks to two months, infants need to be fed on demand because their stomachs are so small," Dr. Widome explains. "In addition, their sleep doesn't follow any predictable pattern—they just doze off several times a day."
Still, while you can't impose a schedule early on, you can take steps that'll make it easier to implement one down the road. Begin by doing activities—eating, playing, resting—in the same order throughout the day. And while bedtime may be late—from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.—it's never too early for a soothing routine. Try a warm bath, massage, and lullaby before putting your baby to bed.
Get With The Routine
Once your baby is 2 or 3 months old, he'll eat less often and sleep for longer stretches. This is the perfect time to watch for any patterns that emerge. Here's what to expect.
2 to 4 Months:
- Babies usually take a morning nap within an hour or two of waking up and will sleep for an hour. (Most also take a second and third nap, but times and lengths of these are more variable.) Put your baby down for a nap at the first sign that she's tired. "Signs include yawning, less babbling, and less interest in her surroundings," says Marc Weissbluth, M.D., author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. "If your baby is rubbing her eyes, you've probably waited too long. Try putting her down ten or 15 minutes earlier the next day."
- She'll enjoy longer periods of activity after mealtime. Set aside 15 to 20 minutes to let her play under her baby gym or on the floor.
- She'll probably be ready for bed much earlier in the evening, from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
4 to 6 Months:
- In addition to a regular morning nap, a predictable afternoon nap usually develops, often starting between noon and 2 p.m. and lasting an hour. Some babies—about 15 percent—will also take a third nap between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. "This is fine as long as it doesn't keep him awake past 8 p.m.," Dr. Weissbluth says
- During this period, your baby's mealtimes will probably follow more of a pattern: He'll nurse or bottle-feed when he wakes up and again in the midmorning, early afternoon, late afternoon, and early evening. Introducing solids will add more structure to your day.
6 to 12 Months:
- Most babies in this age range take two solid naps—each lasting an hour to an hour and a half—at around 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. If your baby takes a third nap, it will most likely disappear by the time he's 9 months.
- If you haven't already, pick up those board books! "You should read to your baby every day," Dr. Widome says. "Block out at least ten minutes in the morning or before bed."