Setting up routines may come naturally to the can't-live-without-my-PDA type of gal. But for laid-back moms, putting a baby on a schedule may not initially hold much appeal. No matter what your style, though, you and your child will benefit from having some structure to your days. "Routines help you find a rhythm so your baby doesn't get too tired, too hungry, or totally overwhelmed," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution. "Consistent mealtimes, sleep times, and playtimes will help your infant feel safe and secure, and you'll be a lot more relaxed too."
Don't worry: no need to pencil in every single activity. In fact, it's important to be flexible because life with a baby hardly ever goes as planned. But if you pay attention to your child's patterns, you'll find a schedule that works for both of you.
You won't have much control over your baby's sleep schedule for the first four months because he'll doze off whenever he's tired -- which is most of the time. But after that, keep an eye out for emerging patterns. If he tends to start yawning, rubbing his eyes, and slowing down at certain times of day, use those cues. "If you engage in particular activities before you put him in the crib, he'll begin to associate those actions with sleep," says Charles Shubin, MD, medical director of Family Health Centers of Baltimore. Try changing your baby's diaper, reading a book, or singing a song before you put him down.
Every baby's different, but if your newborn takes two naps a day, he'll probably want the first one within a few hours of waking up and the second in the afternoon, usually between noon and 2 p.m. If that schedule is inconvenient, steer him toward a nap routine that works better for both of you. Try not to skip naps, though, because your child is growing quickly this year and may need as many as seven hours of daytime rest.
A strict feeding schedule isn't practical at first because a newborn needs to be fed whenever she's hungry. After your baby is about 3 months old, though, her mealtimes will begin to follow a predictable pattern: She'll take the breast or bottle when she wakes up in the morning and then generally every two to three hours until bedtime. Experiment to see what she likes best: eating before her nap, after she wakes up, or after playtime. Once you pick up on your baby's preferences, try to stick to them. (But know that your child may need to eat more when she's having a growth spurt and less when she's sick.)
When you introduce solid foods (around 6 months), your child's mealtimes will gradually start to be more like your own, but she'll still need breast milk or formula five to seven times a day, in addition to her solids at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Use little rituals -- like singing a song when you put her in her high chair -- to teach your baby when it's time to chow down.
To carve out plenty of moments for fun -- which is a great way to bond with your baby -- you'll need to do a little trial and error to ascertain the best times for active and quiet play. "My 4-month-old is most playful when he's well rested," says Marin Steindorf, of Westlake Village, California. "So the perfect time for him to get silly is when he wakes up from his nap." Generally, playtime works best when you start with more lively, stimulating activities (like playing peekaboo) and then move to the quieter ones (like reading). You should also work in at least 10 minutes of tummy time each day to help him build upper-body strength, and head outdoors on occasion to get some fresh air. Your baby will tell you when the fun is over: If he turns away from you or the toy he's been playing with, or he becomes fussy and frustrated, he's probably had enough.
You can start a bedtime routine as early as your newborn's first week of life. Though it's unlikely your baby will sleep consistently at such a young age, you'll lay the foundation for healthy sleep habits later on. In their first year of life, kids need nine to 12 hours of sleep each night, so any time between 7 and 8:30 p.m. is a good baby bedtime. But you'll need to start earlier to get your little one ready to settle down. There are many options for an evening routine -- like a bath, massage, soft music, reading, and feeding. Just mix and match until you find a combo that works for you. The important thing is to keep a predictable pattern so your baby will go down easily, sleep peacefully, and be happy in the morning.
Whether it's a result of travel, teething, or a bad cold, there will inevitably be times when your newly established routine gets totally thrown off. Here's how to cope.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Parents magazine.