When you bring a newborn home, life becomes a blur. Your baby might have her days and nights reversed, need to eat every and nap in fits and starts. Your life might be just as chaotic -- sleep when you can, eat when you remember, shower with some luck. But here's a tip: Babies thrive on routines. They give rhythm and predictability to a baby's day, so they're very reassuring. "Imagine how confusing a baby's world could be," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. "Routines give them a scaffolding, a structure, and their days don't seem so random." And that means that you, the parents, can start to thrive when you have a plan in place, too.
Simply beginning a bedtime ritual, for instance, can lower your anxiety, because you know you're working toward closure to the day. Predictable naptimes give you a break, so you don't have to be "on" all the time. But while routines can help parents feel in control, sometimes it's hard to know when and how to institute them. It's next to impossible to put a newborn on a nap schedule, and for the first few months, babies need to nurse on demand, so a mealtime routine won't work. When the time is right, the four routines on the following pages will bring baby a sense of security and you a sense of peace.
Picking up on his cues will help you establish a routine that works for him and will help prevent meltdowns from your baby getting too hungry or tired. Watch more to learn about establishing a routine.
When your newborn sleeps 16 hours a day but wakes up every two hours to eat, it might seem a little silly to start a "bedtime" routine. But give it a try, suggests Pamela High, M.D., director of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Rhode Island Hospital. "Act differently during the day than at night," she says. "Dance and talk loudly and go for walks during the day. But when baby wakes any time after your set bedtime, keep the activity, your voice, and the lights low. Feed her and put her back down. She'll start to understand that nighttime is for sleeping, not playing."
To start, pick a reasonable time, such as around 7 p.m., and choose three or four things you'd like to do every night. You could put your baby in pajamas, sing songs, say prayers, read a book, or give your baby a massage. It doesn't matter exactly what you do, as long as it's relaxing for everyone and you do it every night at the same time. You're giving signals that the baby will learn to follow," explains Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night.. "Eventually she'll get sleepy because of those signals."
Start tub baths when you get the go-ahead from your doctor, usually after your baby's umbilical stump falls off. A newborn's bath routine is all about preparation. Before you even move the baby, gather everything you'll need: an infant tub, a bath towel, a hooded baby towel or robe, baby soap, a soft washcloth, a plastic cup for rinsing his hair, lotion, diaper cream, and a diaper. Fold the bath towel in half and spread it out on the floor. This is your landing pad to lay the baby down on when you take him out. Place the hooded towel on top. Next, fill the tub with just an inch or two of warm water, and test it on the inside of your arm to make sure it isn't too hot. Throw the washcloth right into the tub, and squirt a little soap on it. Only now should you undress baby and gently lower him into the bath. After you're done bathing, grasp baby firmly with both hands under his armpits, lift him out of the tub and onto the hooded towel. Quickly wrap the towel around him, then pick him up.
When Baby's daytime sleep finally begins to assume a pattern (around the three-month mark), it's time to start a nap routine. Instead of letting your baby fall asleep anywhere, start working with baby's natural rhythm to develop a nap schedule.
According to Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night., babies usually fall into one of two camps: "by the clock nappers" or "two hour rule" nappers. The former tends to doze off at the same times every day. The latter need to sleep after two hours of wakefulness, no matter what time of day it is. When you discover your baby's pattern, put her down in her crib when you know she'll be getting sleepy. The nap routine should be a shorter version of bedtime. Read the same book or sing the same lullaby that you do at night. Darken the room. By 3 months, baby will probably begin to recognize these signals and will know it's time to sleep.
Sitting down to eat meals as a family is one of the most important routines you can establish with your baby. Have him join you when he begins eating solids: At about 6 months, when he's ready for baby food, sit with him one-on-one before dinner as he slowly and messily learns how to eat with a spoon. Then, once it's time for everyone else to eat, pull the high chair right up to the table with you. Give him some Cheerios or soft diced veggies to play with as you eat dinner. And when he starts regular food, give him whatever you're dining on, cut into tiny pieces. Turn off the TV and talk about your day. When you sit down together, baby develops healthy eating habits, as well as language and social skills. But one of the most important reasons to have a meal routine won't be obvious for years: Eating together as a family has a "protective effect," Dr. High says. As children grow, those who enjoy family meals are often better behaved. Research has also found that adolescents who eat with their families usually do better in school and are less likely to be depressed. Having a set time where you can all catch up at the end of the day makes everyone feel more connected.
Routines need to fit who you are. There are a few hard-and-fast rules for creating happy, joyful routines for your infant. If you're up early and need to get out in the morning (or you'll go insane), get your baby dressed as soon as he wakes up, and head outside with the stroller. On the other hand, if you're just not ready to get into gear first thing (you're still in your pj's at 10 a.m. on weekends), that early-morning walk isn't going to work for you. Plan to get out of the house in the afternoon, and make your mornings about quiet time at home. But be prepared for your routines and schedules to change, sometimes quickly. Kit McIntyre, of Columbia, South Carolina, remembers: "There are so many changes in that first year that many of the routines only last a few weeks before you need to adapt again. Don't freak if the routines get thrown out the window. If your baby starts rubbing his eyes at the time of day when you're used to running errands, you've got to go with the flow. You can get things done later! After three children, Kit says she's learned through experience that "babies need calm parenting more than anything else."
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of American Baby magazine.