Many turns of the clock ago, I was a young, first-time mother of the most easygoing baby on the planet. I took my baby girl to restaurants, movies, trips overseas;
she ate when she was hungry and slept when she was tired, whether we were at home or away. Past eight weeks of age, she slept soundly when it was dark, and she woke with a smile when the sun shone through her window. When someone asked me what time my baby went down for a nap, I didn’t have a solid answer.
Based on my own parenting experience, I had little compassion when baby and I met up with a college friend who also had her first baby in tow. We had done some shopping and were starting to talk about where to go for lunch when, suddenly, she looked at her watch and nearly bolted for the door. It was almost time for her baby to take his nap—if he didn’t, the rest of the day would be ruined! I didn’t object, but I have to confess to thinking, can’t baby sleep in his stroller while you carry on with your day?
Ten years later, I look at our firstborn children and see some key differences. My girl is still sweet and mellow, but she’s rather sluggish when it’s time to leave for school in the morning, and her showers last well into the double digits. My friend’s son is highly energetic, athletic and always in a hurry. I also have to admit, my friend is much more organized and efficient than I am! While we each have four kids now, her house looks pretty close to perfect at all times. My house looks … well, it looks like four kids live in it.
So who had the “better” system? Each of us had a lifestyle that fit our personalities and our babies’ temperaments. We were comfortable and our babies were happy. Both babies are beautiful, brilliant middle-schoolers now—each wonderful in their own way. Did the schedules we set (or didn’t set) for our babies determine the kind of big kids they would grow into? To some extent, yes, probably. Scheduling is one slice of the nature-vs.-nurture pie. But as far as each of us made time for the important things and let our children know they were loved, we were both on the right track.
So the question is, should your baby be on a schedule? If so, how rigid should that schedule be? And how should it be determined? Before these questions can be answered, take a look at your life and at yourself. Then you can conjure a realistic vision of what a successful day looks like for your family.
What are your time constraints?
It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to let baby determine her day—sleep when she’s tired, eat when she’s hungry.” But that’s not a realistic approach for a working mama or a family with multiple children who need to be driven certain places at certain times. When I had my first baby, I began to work from home as an intern for P&N. I had nothing but flexibility, so baby’s schedule could vary from day to day. When baby was tired, I would put her down for her nap, pull out my laptop and get some work done. After she woke, I would feed her whenever she acted hungry, take her for walks when the weather was nice, play with her and read her books at any time of day. She naturally slept well at night, no matter what time I put her down, and she was free to sleep in if she wanted to.
When my first was a little older, though still a baby, I began to work for P&N full-time, commuting from the Atlanta suburbs to an office closer to the city center. Every working day, my daughter suddenly had a time to rise and a place to be. She became accustomed to spending set hours at a babysitter’s house while I was at work. Mealtimes and sleep time became more structured because they had to. Still, she rolled with it pretty well.
Today, I still have a baby. In fact, he looks remarkably like that first baby (especially when you stick a bow in his hair). But poor baby No. 4 doesn’t have a lot of say in his schedule. Every morning, he is up and dressed and fed breakfast in time to take the big kids to school, then straight to the gym for mama’s fitness fix, then immediately home for his nap. He generally gets to decide when he will wake up from his nap (sometimes, though, he doesn’t get that luxury). Then it’s time to eat, run errands, and head back to school to pick up the kids. Afternoons and evenings are dominated by the big kids’ activities, depending on the season, then dinner and bed.
In summary, I’ve experienced the slow life of the first-time mom, the ordered life of the working mom, and the chaotic life of a mom of four. All are pretty great and come with unique challenges. As you consider a timetable for your baby, take a look at the parameters that govern your household. What time does baby need to be up? Can she set her own schedule, or will outside demands necessitate a wake-up call? Does baby have unrestricted napping opportunities, or are there certain times that work best for the rest of the family?
What does baby really need?
A newborn needs about 16 hours of sleep in every 24-hour day, but her nap times are rather unpredictable. At three months, a baby still needs 13-15 hours of sleep each day, including naps that are becoming longer and more regular. Since three months is also the benchmark when many mamas end maternity leave and return to work, it’s a good time to plan out a schedule that will work for you and for baby in the months to come.
Getting into a routine with your tot starts with observing her innate patterns. Polly Moore, PhD, author of The Natural Baby Sleep Solution, recommends putting baby down for naps at regular intervals based on a biological rhythm called the basic rest and activity cycle, or the BRAC. The BRAC is species-specific: for humans, it’s a 90-minute cycle. Moore found that babies consistently exhibit sleep behavior in tune with the BRAC, growing tired 90 minutes after they last awakened. “After 90 minutes of wakefulness, the baby has completed the alert phase governed by his inner clock,” says Moore. “This is when the baby has the best chance of falling asleep quickly and easily.
Moore’s BRAC-based program works wonderfully if you have a schedule that permits it, or if your child attends a daycare that’s open to that kind of personalization. Following baby’s natural BRAC is a way of letting her establish a schedule that you can work with, rather than the other way around. “This is not a program of putting the baby ‘on a schedule,’” Moore emphasizes. “Rather, the approach is to learn to follow your baby’s inner schedule, your baby’s own internal sleep and wake rhythms.”
If your day-to-day is more rigid, or if your daycare has specific nap times they must adhere to, you will find more success in setting baby’s schedule for her. Teressa DeDominicis, mother to Amelia in Fredericksburg, Virginia, knew her family would operate more smoothly with baby on a regular schedule, particularly when DeDominicis returned to work after six weeks of maternity leave. “I talked to my daycare provider about their infant room schedule,” says DeDominicis, “so I could make the transition as seamless as possible, and that worked really well.” Depending on the needs of the family, a workable schedule may be set by the parents, the daycare or the baby herself, and then shared with the other members of your baby care squad.
What works for you as a mother?
“I kept all of my babies on schedules,” says Kasey Tross, a mother of four in Chesterfield, Virginia. “The best part about it was knowing what they needed when they cried. Based on where we were in our schedule, I knew if they were hungry, tired or had an upset tummy.”
Personally, I feel most confident as a mother when I understand why baby is crying, so that I am able to meet his needs. Even when I completely ignore the clock, I stick to a pattern of wake-eat-play-sleep during the day, and wake-eat-sleep at night (until the wake-eat part shrinks and disappears, leaving only wonderful sleep!). Adhering to the pattern lets me know that if my son is fussing, even though he’s eaten recently, it’s because he now needs to sleep. Whatever the length of each nap, baby will expect to eat right when he wakes up.
Following a schedule—or at least a pattern—can help both parents (along with other regular or occasional caregivers) know what to expect. DeDominicis says of her baby’s schedule, “It helps manage expectations with your significant other about what is needed when.” If baby always goes down for a nap at 10 a.m., then there’s no need for debate when he seems irritated at 9:55 a.m.
Schedule-keeper Laurel Osai, mother to Ephraim in North Salt Lake, Utah, says, “Some people feel that a schedule might be binding; however, I find it freeing as I can plan my day accordingly.” Osai makes a good point: Guessing at baby’s needs can be frustrating and ineffective. Plus, according to Moore, if you want baby to get the amount of sleep she needs, you should put her down for intentional naps that coordinate with her BRAC. Unplanned naps that come in short bursts, in the car or stroller, don’t give baby the nourishing, deep sleep she requires.
Lindsey Bell, a mother of four in Holly Springs, North Carolina, says, “I let my first two picks their own schedules and planned everything around that. It worked great, and they were excellent sleepers! The downside was they were less adaptable to days that did not accommodate their schedules.”
In contrast, Jennifer Anderson, a mother of six (!) in Castle Rock, Colorado, can’t let baby determine her own schedule because the demands of the family have them constantly on the go. However, Anderson shares that mom and baby are both happy with the arrangement. She says of her daughter, “She is just as happy and content as the first ones who were on a schedule.”
Alaina Percival, mother to Edwin in San Francisco, California, frequently travels long distances with her young son. While she doesn’t hold him to any sort of schedule, she shares that he typically takes three naps a day, sleeping at home or away, slowly adjusting to the time zone he finds himself in.
Clearly, families have found success with many different strategies to time management. With baby’s needs at the forefront, pick an approach that fits your personality and works for your household. Be consistent, but be willing to bend occasionally, too. Even the most stringent schedule needs to allow some wiggle room for fun!