How to Start (and Keep!) a Routine for Baby

Expert advice on getting your baby to eat and sleep on a regular and predictable basis.
newborn asleep covered with knitted blanket

Q. I have an 8-week-old. Her eating and sleeping are all over the map, and everyone keeps telling me to "put her on a schedule." What does that mean and how do I do it?

Many parents feel exhausted and puzzled by their newborn's seemingly random sleeping, waking, eating, and pooping schedule. This lack of predictability is normal. The first three to four months of a baby's life is a transition period during which infants learn to adapt to life outside the womb. Becoming accustomed to being awake during the day and sleeping at night, and to other daily routines, takes time and help from you.

Like everything else about her, your baby's schedule is unique. It reflects her individual needs and temperament. Some babies need to sleep 17 hours a day; for others, 14 is sufficient. Certain babies are more active or have a faster metabolism. Getting to know your baby will help you respond to her in a way that meets her needs best.

Nevertheless, babies are not usually capable of being on a fairly consistent schedule until they're 4 to 6 months old. So the first few months of your child's life is not the time to work on imposing a rigid routine. For newborns, it is best that naps and feedings are on demand. However, developing some caregiving routines around sleeping and eating will set the groundwork for establishing a schedule later on. For example, when you see that your baby is getting drowsy, sing her a lullaby, and then put her to bed. Over time, the lullaby will become a cue for napping. And babies find comfort in being able to anticipate what will happen next.

It's also a good idea to look for patterns in your child's behavior to help you develop routines. One mother, who was trying to get her 10-week-old to take two or three longer naps a day instead of six or seven catnaps, noticed that her child got very sleepy during feedings. So she slowly adjusted the feeding times to take place closer to when she wanted her baby to nap. She also started trying to keep her daughter awake a few minutes longer before each nap so that the baby would be awake for longer periods during the day, take longer and fewer naps, and sleep for longer periods at night.

The way to get your baby into more of a routine for feedings (stretching out the time between feedings so they are longer and fewer) is similar to the plan described for sleep. Begin by delaying a feeding for even just a few minutes when your baby is giving you signals that she's hungry. If you continue to do this at each feeding, she is likely to eat a little more each time and will be able to wait longer between meals.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2004.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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