I don't remember exactly when I made up my good-night song for my infant son, Charlie. But I'll never forget how well it worked: As soon as I sang the first few notes, he popped his thumb into his mouth and dropped his head onto my shoulder in preparation for a snooze. From that day forward, naptime, once a struggle, became a breeze. From morning to evening—and every hour in between—babies crave consistency. "Knowing what to expect and when is very comforting to them," says Marilyn Heins, MD, a pediatrician in Tucson and author of ParenTips.
Routines can be equally empowering for new moms, whose days have a tendency to spin out of control. Once your baby is on a schedule, it's easier to tackle your endless list of tasks -- and maybe even find a free moment for yourself. Although you can start carving out a regimen as soon as your newborn comes home from the hospital, it takes an infant at least a few weeks to get used to napping, eating, and playing at the same hours every day. Read on to give your baby the predictability he needs.
Having trouble getting your child to eat at the right times? Creating a comfortable environment may solve the problem. Look for a quiet, dimly lit spot, and breast- or bottle-feed in the same chair or rocker every time. "If you're consistent, your baby will pick up on the cues and be less likely to fuss," says Stephen Muething, MD, clinical director of general pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
With two active preschool daughters, Colleen Scariano, of Indianapolis, has a tough time finding a calm location to nurse 7-month-old Luke. But it's well worth the effort. "Feedings go a lot better when I can minimize the noise and commotion around us," says Scariano.
They'll also go more smoothly if you feed your baby at regular intervals (usually spaced by at least 2 1/2 hours), so she starts to sense when it's time to eat. If your child starts crying an hour after a full meal, avoid using your breast or a bottle to soothe her. Eventually she'll learn to trust that when she's hungry, she'll get fed.
Once your baby is on solids (at around 4 to 6 months), you can set up new rituals to trigger the food connection. As she prepares a meal for her 6-month-old daughter, Naomi, Margaret Littman straps her into a high chair and puts a plastic bowl and spoon on the tray. "It helps her figure out that a meal is coming soon," says the mother of two from Portland, Oregon. "Plus, giving her something to play with buys me a few minutes to get her food ready."
Unlike with most other routines, when it comes to play, how you do it with your infant is more important than when you do it. "Babies learn from repetition," says Barbara Howard, MD, a pediatrician specializing in child behavior and development at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, in Baltimore. "Doing the same activities in the same order will make them more fun and educational for him." So before you introduce a new book, begin with a familiar favorite. And don't skip peekaboo just because you think your baby's ready for you to introduce "open-shut them." Although you can initiate playtime whenever your baby seems in the mood, Dr. Howard says the ideal times tend to be right after breakfast and mid-afternoon, when an infant is well fed and rested. Limit sessions to 10 to 20 minutes, and stop as soon as your infant starts looking away or stretching out his hands in front of him, as if to say, "I've had enough."
Some moms find it helpful to start with the most stimulating activities (such as playing with toys that light up or make loud noises); then you can work your way toward quieter ones (such as reading) so your little one realizes playtime is coming to an end. Jennifer Habra, of Phoenix, signaled that playtime was over for her sons, Steven and Joseph, by playing a short baby video. "It was the perfect way to help them wind down," she says.
Sending signals that naptime is near, whether by playing a lullaby or putting your infant in a swing, will help her nod off faster. "The steps of the routine become a natural sleep-inducer," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution. Twice a day, Elizabeth Simmons, of Atlanta, carries her 7-month-old daughter, Maggie, into her nursery, sets her white-noise machine to "babbling brook," closes the window shade, changes Maggie's diaper, and lays her down in the crib. "It's not anything fancy or creative, but I do the same thing in the same order every day, and that's why it works," Simmons says. It's also a good idea to give your infant a nap at the same hours and for similar lengths of time each day. "Babies look for that reliability," Pantley says. Newborns generally need three daily snoozes totaling seven hours, while babies 6 months and older require two naps totaling three to four hours.
Add a daily walk to your infant's routine. The fresh air and stimulation is good for your baby—and safe for a newborn, as long as she's dressed appropriately and shielded from the sun.
Habra made a point of taking her sons for a predinner stroll every day. "At first I was intimidated by the idea of bundling them up and packing up everything I might possibly need," she says. "But the boys seemed to enjoy being outside, so I got over it." Walking is good for you too: You get exercise and a break from the confines of the house without having to leave your little one behind.
An early-evening bath is a soothing way to prepare your baby for bed. While she doesn't really need to be washed more than twice a week, it's beneficial to make tub time part of your daily routine, says Dr. Muething. Just make sure you use soap sparingly and rinse immediately to avoid drying out your infant's tender skin. Though most infants love the warm water and Mommy's loving touch, some are scared of baths. If your child has water phobia, ease his fear by saving special toys for the tub and playing fun games (such as "this little piggy") as soon as his toes get wet. Make the after-bath experience more pleasant by cradling your child in a towel or giving him a massage. Get your spouse involved too. It was Mary Lyon's job to bathe her three daughters when they were babies, but her husband, Ed, applied moisturizer and put on their pajamas afterward. "They loved the cuddling—and the fact that it was Daddy time," says the mom from Cincinnati.
Face it: No matter what strategy you try with your infant, some evenings are bound to be a struggle. Still, your child will sleep better -- and for longer -- if you stick to a set bedtime. "It's the key to establishing a regular sleep cycle," says Ken Wible, MD, chief of general pediatrics at Children's Mercy Hospital, in Kansas City, Missouri. Experts also suggest putting a baby down as early as possible—typically between 7:30 and 8:00—since infants need nine to 11 hours of nighttime slumber and often wake up several times for feedings. The bedtime routine is equally important, but a lot more flexible. Just try to make it peaceful and predictable. Rocking, caressing, singing, playing soft music, and setting a radio to static are just a few of the many effective ways to signal that the day is over. However, don't nurse or bottle-feed your infant to sleep; it will prevent her from developing the ability to soothe herself if she wakes up during the night. Instead, get your child settled in your arms, then let her drift off by herself in the crib.