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Establishing Routines: Finding what works for you and your baby

Many babies thrive on routine: They eat better, sleep better, and are more emotionally secure when they know that their needs are going to be met in a predictable way. But, as most new parents quickly discover, the routine a baby likes isn't necessarily the one you're trying to impose. There are simply no guarantees that her schedule will mesh with yours.

"The first few months of any new job -- including parenthood -- are hard to organize," says Andrea Phillips, a registered maternity nurse at Hoag Hospital, in Newport Beach, California. "Your ultimate goal is to arrive at a system that works for both you and your baby."

Here, some expert advice regarding three major areas of concern.

Eating and Sleeping

For newborns, these two activities are inextricably linked, as most babies sleep a total of 16 to 18 hours a day. And because an infant can hold only enough food in her stomach to sustain her for a few hours, she'll awaken when she's hungry.

"Newborns need to be fed on demand, so I recommend that you postpone attempts at establishing a schedule until your baby is at least 4 to 6 weeks old," says Linda Black, M.D., a neonatology fellow and general pediatrician at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis.

Although it may not be possible to impose much consistency in those first hectic days, there are some steps you can take to foster an early sense of routine. Try to sit in the same place each time you nurse. You'll also want to keep the area well-lit, day and night, to discourage your little one from dozing while feeding.

Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night (Harper Perennial, 1997), recommends starting some sort of sleep ritual for even the youngest infants. "A simple routine -- feeding, changing, then singing a lullaby -- helps your baby understand that it's time to go to sleep." Arrange your activities according to your baby's natural tendencies. If he's soothed by a nice, warm bath, for instance, consider giving him one in the evening; on the other hand, if the water and splashing rev him up, switch tubtime to earlier in the day. Above all, make sure that your baby is awake when you put him in his crib. "It's how he learns to sleep on his own," Dr. Mindell explains. "If he's dozing after a meal, gently wake him and then put him down."

By the time your baby is 4 months old, he'll be able to hold more in his stomach and remain satisfied longer. He'll also be alert for longer periods, so you can attempt to initiate a more regular eating and sleeping schedule.

Introduce your baby to the outdoors by taking a daily 15- to 30-minute walk after one of his naps. "The outdoors is very stimulating for babies," says Mary Rivkin, Ph.D., an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, in Baltimore. Just remember to avoid exposing your child to rainy, very cold, or very hot weather.

As your baby nears 3 months of age, you can start to incorporate playtime into his daily routine. "Don't try anything elaborate -- just reading, singing, or playing with toys for about five minutes, several times a day," advises S.K. Bosu, M.D., chief of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente, in Anaheim, California. "Your baby probably doesn't have the attention span for more."

Many parents enjoy taking their babies to infant classes as a part of outside play. "But don't worry if that's not part of your routine," Dr. Bosu says. "Your baby's social skills won't be compromised. More than anything else, these classes are opportunities for moms to connect with other moms."

"One of the most important elements to include in your routine as a new mother is time for yourself," Phillips says. "Ultimately, you'll be a better parent to your baby if you take a minimum of 15 minutes twice a day to read or relax." Phillips also advocates making room in your schedule for participating in a new-mothers' group. "It forces you to get out and socialize with other women who understand what you're going through," she explains. And, of course, finding time for exercise is always a good idea. Not only does it help you drop the pregnancy weight but it also helps fend off postpartum blues.