The why, when and how for establishing a routine
The idea of a routine is met with mixed reactions from mums.
Some swear they couldn’t live without one, while others view the mere suggestion a routine as a dirty word.
And don’t get me wrong, there’s no way to remove all of the unpredictability of life with littlies. However, wherever you fall on the structure-loving spectrum, there are huge benefits to laying down a basic routine to support sleep.
Why – the benefits of a routine
One of the common misconceptions we encounter from critics of a sleep-supporting routine is that it stems from a parent-driven need for control.
The reality is that babies love consistency and thrive on routine – especially when it’s one that works with their circadian rhythms. We all have an internal biological clock, which matures as we develop.
When we work with this underlying driver, our children are usually much more content. As parents too, we’re better able to understand and predict their needs – often before they have to cry to let us know them.
Routines that work with a baby’s natural biological sleep windows allow parents to understand when their babies are biologically tired and ready for a nap. They help us keep feeds away from naps to avoid forming a ‘feed to sleep’ association and to minimise potential digestive disturbances.
Knowing where your child is at throughout the day can also make it easier to spot any sources of problems or concern.
If you know they are meeting their sleep needs, it’s possible to then look for other clues when they are upset and consider your child’s needs in a clearer context.
Then there are the benefits for parents.
As well as enjoying a happy baby, lots actually enjoy the predictability and consistency, which allows them to plan around what their baby ultimately needs. It helps parents to respect their child’s need for sleep, while still being able to do activities. In this way, a routine actually tends to reduce stress.
Our nap routines are also structured to work well around school and kindy drop offs, which is important if you have other children. There’s nothing worse than having to wake your sleeping baby when they’ve gone down too close to 3pm!
An optimal sleep routine means sleep is more predictable for your baby, so they are easier to settle and don’t fight sleep as much.
It provides a structure that makes it easy for someone else to look after your littlie and it can remove the guesswork, making it easy to know when your child is ready to drop a nap.
An age-appropriate routine also means that, as soon as your baby is physically able, they start getting most of their calories between 7am and 7pm. This often means they sleep through the night earlier – which remains the ultimate aim, or somewhat the ‘holy grail’ of infant sleep!
This is because the right structure supports optimal night-time sleep.
We often say that how your child sleeps during the day will determine their nights. It’s worth it to make sure they’re not getting too much daytime sleep that can rob them of restorative night sleep, or too little daytime sleep which means they go to bed overtired and wake lots throughout the night.
When – the optimal time to start establishing a routine
Taking things right back to the beginning, some people find the newborn months relatively easy when it comes to sleep.
Newborn sleep is about 50% genetic, and 50% nurture (a result of what you do as a parent), so for those blessed with a relatively easy sleeper, establishing a routine in those early months is undoubtedly easier.
For those who are starting their day at the same sort of time, and are waking their baby to feed 3 hourly, a more timed nap schedule can start emerging from as early as six weeks old.
Other families are dealing with other stuff – there might be trouble establishing feeding, a case of colic, undiagnosed reflux, intolerances, recovery from a traumatic birth, older children, or other household stresses. In this case, establishing a routine might be the last thing on your mind.
And that’s OK too.
There should never be external pressure, especially in those early months, to get on a routine.
Establishing feeding and bonding with your baby are all that matter to start.
Still others don’t necessarily realise that a routine is possible, or what the benefits of one might be, until later.
So, in short, you can start establishing a routine at any time. That said, there is a sweet spot (usually 3-6 months old!).
The reality is that the earlier you establish a routine, the more it sticks – so you’re likely to have a more consistent sleep journey, one usually marked with less regressions and setbacks.
How – the practicalities of bringing in a routine
A good goal to begin with is to start and end your day at the same sort of time.
If you wake up at the same time each morning, are aware of how long your baby can stay awake in a stretch for their age, and can get them to sleep relatively easily when they do need to settle, things usually start to fall into place.
This is especially true if you are waking them to feed three hourly in those early days. It’s when babies have trouble settling that we usually start seeing trouble with the routine.
Start with putting your baby down at a similar time each day for their morning and lunchtime naps.
If they are still of an age where they need a third nap in the afternoon, keep using this one as an emergency catnap to get them on track before they go down for the night.
The normal pattern is that the first nap of the day usually falls into place first, then the second – or lunchtime – nap. The third nap, if you are using that one, tends to be assisted – while walking or driving – so don’t stress about that one being done in their bed.
Just as important as establishing the time for the start of their nap, is keeping the end time consistent.
If your baby wakes up early from their nap, work on resettling them. If you can’t, you might need to use a bridging nap to get them through to their next scheduled naptime.
Either way, wake them at the scheduled end of their nap (even if they have just fallen asleep!) to keep things on track. A domino effect can quickly occur if not…
Lastly, keep a close eye on signs that your baby is ready for less sleep.
Don’t be afraid to move on to the next age-appropriate nap routine to meet your child’s changing needs.
Holding onto a nap schedule for too long can make the whole routine fall apart!
Ready to get started with a routine for better naps, better nights and easier settling? Join the thousands of mums just like you who trust and use our online sleep program.
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital Sleep Educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education.
Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.