The Best Schedule for Your Baby

While having set meal times—and bed and bath times—is important, the best baby schedule is one that works for your baby and for your family.

From above cute African American baby peacefully sleeping while lying in comfortable crib in nursery
Photo: BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy

If you are the parent of a little one, you may have heard the advice, "You need to get your baby on a schedule!" Or maybe you are finding that your routine with your baby is all over the place, and you are wondering when things will become more scheduled and predictable. Perhaps you need a schedule so that you can get to work on time, or get your baby ready for the sitter. Whatever the case, you are wondering how you might go about establishing a daily routine for your baby, and what that might look like.

What Is a Baby Schedule?

Everyone defines what a baby schedule is a little differently. For some people, baby schedules are more like daily routines or rhythms they practice with their baby, usually centering around sleep, eating, and playtime. Maybe they tend to feed their baby at the same time each morning, and in the same location, and this gradually becomes their routine. Perhaps their baby is starting to settle into a nap pattern, and so they start putting them down for a nap at the same approximate time each day.

For others, baby schedules are a little more strict or deliberate. Some baby schedules come from an outside source, such as advice from a baby book, or a timeline based on getting their baby to the sitter or daycare on time. For these parents, baby schedules might have more rules and may need to be adhered to more strictly.

Why Are Baby Schedules Important?

Baby schedules are only as important as a parent makes them to be. Some parents do not use schedules while others crave routine—or need a schedule to make sure they get to work on time, or tend to their other children's needs. But there is no right answer here! No harm that will come to your baby if you don't establish a schedule, says Rebekah Diamond, MD, assistant professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University, and author of the book, Parent Like A Pediatrician.

"There's no evidence to support that babies need firm schedules for eating, sleeping, or playing," says Dr. Diamond. "As I explain to parents, it's unlikely that, over the course of human history, normal development was dependent on a fixed schedule in infancy."

Still, says Dr. Diamond, most parents need some sort of baby schedule to function in the modern world. "Whether it's being cared for by a nanny, at daycare, or at home with mom or dad, it's a rare situation where some basic daily plan isn't helpful," she says. So, while there may not be developmental reasons that a baby needs a routine, there are definitely benefits to caretakers to implement routines around eating, sleeping, and playing.

When Should You Start Implementing a Schedule?

Most experts recommend that you wait till your baby is around 3 months to start establishing a schedule. "Typically, parents start to develop a sense of what is a healthy sleeping and feeding routine for their baby around 2 to 3 months," says Ilan Shapiro, MD, chief health correspondent and medical affairs officer at AltaMed Health Services. But why wait? Well, inconsistency. Before 3 months, babies feed frequently and sleep erratically. For example, during the newborn period, babies need to eat 8 to 12 times in a 24 hour period, according to the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP). This makes scheduling hard and/or impossible, at least in the beginning.

How Do They Work?

The best way to establish a schedule for your baby is to spend some time taking note of what your baby is up to, says Dr. Shapiro. "It's important to observe and learn how often your baby needs naps, how much they sleep, and how many feedings they need," he says. Some parents will end up writing down what they observe over the course of a few days and then coming up with a schedule based on that. Others will want to make an effort to tweak their baby's routines so that they fit better into their family's life.

That said, it's important to note that baby's have different temperaments and eating and sleeping needs, says Dr. Diamond. So as you set up and establish a schedule, be flexible. "There will be plenty of times when your baby, no matter how easily they go down for a typical nap, no matter how regular an eater they are, is just not able to stick to whatever routine you've created," says Dr. Diamond. "And that's okay." Patience and persistence are key, as is grace.

The best times to feed an infant

Whatever feeding routine you establish for your baby should be based on their hunger cues. The AAP urges parents to practice "responsive feeding" during the first few months of life, and beyond. This means learning what your baby's hunger cues are and feeding them on demand. Hunger cues may look like a baby making sucking motions with their mouth, putting their hands in their mouth, or turning to a bottle or breast when it's offered. These cues persist throughout the first year of life, until your baby learns to talk and ask for milk and food.

That said, you can still start to base a schedule around your baby's feeding needs starting around 2 to 3 months or so, when your baby's feeding patterns become more organized. As the AAP notes, by about 2 months, your baby might start eating every 3 to 4 hours, and by 6 months, your baby may start eating around every 4 to 5 hours. All babies are different, though, with some eating more frequently.

Either way, you can create an eating routine based on eating patterns you see in your baby, allowing for flexibility during the times your baby needs to eat more frequently, such as during a growth spurt.

The best times to give baby a bath

Not all babies love bath time, especially when they are first born. But in time, many babies start to find bath time fun and relaxing. If your baby falls into that category, you might consider timing their bath around bed time. Many people find that having a bath time routine each night, followed by reading or singing, and one last feed, sets the stage nicely for bedtime.

However, it's worth noting that some babies find bath time too stimulating—so it's best to time their baths earlier in the day so it won't interfere with bedtime. The AAP says that giving your baby more than three baths a week in the first year may dry out their skin. If you are finding that bathing daily dries out your baby's skin, but a more frequent bath is working for you, talk to your pediatrician about baby-safe moisturizers.

Playtime, nap time, bedtime, and more

By the time your baby is 3 months or so, you may start to see patterns when it comes to naps and bedtime. At first, your baby may take 2 to 4 naps, spread out over the course of the day. As time goes on, these naps will be less frequent, and your little one will do more of their sleeping at night, rather than spread out during the day. By 6 months, your baby will probably take a morning and afternoon nap, followed by bedtime.

Playtime can usually happen during the daytime, in between naps. It's best to schedule playtime when your baby has recently slept and eaten. Playtime is for bonding and learning, but it's also important to give your baby time each day to strengthen their muscles. After all, babies go from being floppy newborn, to being able to roll, sit up, crawl, and eventually walk.

The AAP recommends that you practice "tummy time" with your baby two to three times each day for about 3 to 5 minutes. Tummy time simply means placing your baby on their stomach in a supervised, safe setting. You can make it playful by interacting with them and making funny sounds and faces. Some babies will enjoy being read to and eventually may enjoy grabbing onto a few toys during tummy time.

Once your baby starts to have a regular bedtime, you can start to establish a bedtime routine that helps your baby understand that it's time to settle down for sleep. "I recommend starting the bedtime process between 7 to 8 p.m.," says Dr. Shapiro. "Start the bedtime routine with drawing a bath, reading a book, and then brushing their gums and or teeth to build good health and hygiene habits."

Of course, all babies are different, and some may be night owls, so an early bedtime like 7 p.m. may not work for your family. Again, schedules are all about what works for you and your baby. Try not to compare your baby's schedule to other people's schedule—after all, they are not raising the same baby you are!

The bottom line is that when it comes to baby schedules, it's best to go with your instincts and do what works for your family. If you have further questions about your baby's eating, sleeping, or playtime needs, remember to check in with your baby's pediatrician.

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