Baby Sleep Routines: Separating Fact from Fiction 

October 06, 2016
Baby Sleep Routines: Separating Fact from Fiction

Routines are another of those hot topics that are often shrouded in misunderstanding.

In part, this is because routines have become synonymous with the ‘Cry it Out’ philosophy.

Many people assume that babies that are put onto a routine are left to cry themselves to sleep or are instead left being hungry because it is simply not the “specified” time for feeding.

This couldn’t be further from the truth!

What Exactly is a Routine?

A better way to think about a routine is to consider this as simply a natural rhythm or pattern for your day.

The brain has a very sophisticated internal clock that governs almost everything that we do - including what the best time is for us to engage in different activities.

clocks milky
This “body clock” dictates when we sleep and rise, when we eat and when digestion occurs. It regulates body temperature, hormone secretion and a range of other physiological processes.

A routine is a way to harness these natural cycles of alertness and feeding so that sleep happens at the right time when the body is ready for sleep and feeding occurs at optimal intervals to allows for good milk/food intake - which in turn leads to longer stretches of sleep.

What are the Benefits of a Routine?

Have you ever scheduled something during the day like a swimming class and then worried about whether your child will be too sleepy to attend – or will be too cranky at the time – or, alternatively, will be perfectly ready to go?

A routine means that you are empowered as you will know when your child is going to be ready for sleep.

This in turn then helps you make decisions about when to do certain things during the day.

You can make appointments for when the baby is awake, or go for walks with friends while the baby is sleeping in his pram.

Another great thing about routines is that while you have to put in some upfront effort to establish them, once you have a regular routine in place, you can break it every now and again without any major ramifications.

In other words, you’ll have a good understanding of your baby’s limits.

For example, you’ll know you can push back a nap by an hour and everything will be ok.

Similarly, you’ll know that your toddler can skip an individual nap for a day without major ramifications because the general routine schedule will be preserved.

swaddling

Having a more predictable pattern to your day also means that you‘ll be able to rapidly understand when something is wrong.

For example, if your baby is sleeping at regular intervals but suddenly start waking at atypical times, then this could indicate that they are getting sick.

Routines Don’t Have to be Rigid – Just Regular

Your routine doesn’t have to be rigid.

For example, you don’t have to put your baby to bed at exactly 7.30pm every night, but the timing does require a reasonable degree of consistency.

Instead, define a reasonable range and aim to have your baby in bed between, for example, 7 – 7.30pm on most nights.

Babies and toddlers don’t do well going to bed at 7pm one night and then 9pm the next night.

Under such circumstances, you will unfortunately end up with a confused and cranky child on your hands.

Similarly, being on a routine does NOT involve starving or otherwise depriving your baby.

For example, if they indicated that they were hungry before their next scheduled feed, then you would of course feed them!

feedbottle

A routine simply recommends that feeds happen at certain times in order to ensure that your baby will have a good feed - and so a full tummy - for naps without getting a ‘feed-to-sleep’ association.

Feeding a baby right before her nap can mean she is too tired to feed effectively - and additionally risks developing an unwanted ‘feed-to-sleep’ association.

Both factors will often result in your baby not napping for a decent length of time.

But Don’t I just Go Off “Tired Signs”?

Once of the most important things about a routine is that once it is established, it helps you understand when your baby or toddler is going to be ready for sleep.

A child who goes to bed under-tired will either fight sleep or not sleep for very long!

Many people get into what we call the ‘newborn rut’ – where the instant that their now 6 month old shows a tired sign, they are popped straight into bed.

Often, however, parents then find that their baby is only catnapping - or instead begins waking early from their naps. Sound familiar? This is because the baby hasn’t had sufficient wake time and while they are able to go to sleep, they are often not sufficiently tired to be able to sleep for longer than 35-45 minutes.

Having an established routine helps you instead understand whether your baby is truly likely to be ready for an extended sleep.

nap

Doesn’t having a Routine Mean I have to be in the House All Day?

No!!!!! There is nothing to say that being on a routine means you can never leave the house.

Routines are a good way to think about prioritizing sleep, so you might want to work on having the lunchtime sleep at home in their cot to allow them to have a good period of uninterrupted sleep during the middle of the day.

However, their morning and afternoon naps (for younger babies) can be done on-the-go: in a stroller or pram, in a swing or in the car!

out and about baby

With advances in understanding what our babies truly need, modern baby routines avoid pitfalls that have commonly stigmatized the idea of a ‘routine’ in the past.

For example, a good routine will not leave your baby hungry or thirsty.

Nor will it drive your baby to be sleep deprived - and importantly, a routine is not in itself sleep training.

A routine is instead the establishment of a regular time pattern of feeding and sleeping that allows the vast majority of babies to be simply happier, calmer and content.

Just as importantly, routines can give you as a parent more confidence, calmness and control – and, of course, the opportunity for some much needed sleep of your own!

Kate has worked in the field of Sleep Medicine for over 15 years. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne and has since worked extensively both here in Australia as well as most recently in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She is passionate about working with families to help children sleep better and is the founder of Babysomnia. She currently lives in Melbourne with her husband and four young children. If you have a question for Kate you can ask it on the Facebook page or for more information check out the website at www.babysomnia.com