A flexible routine – good for baby, good for you
Ask any parent, and they’ll tell you that one of the greatest challenges of bringing a new baby home is coping with the exhaustion. Nothing is quite so tiring as those first few weeks of bathing, feeding, burping, soothing, and then doing it all over again. Getting your baby settled into a predictable routine – a pattern for when and how often they feed and sleep - can make all the difference in your home.
A routine isn’t for everyone
“Every mom and every baby is different”, says occupational therapist and co-author of “Baby Sense”, Megan Faure, who emphasizes that there is no “one size fits all” solution when it comes to implementing a routine. “There are some mothers who are very laid-back, and don’t enjoy the structure of a routine,” she says - and if you’re that kind of mom, that’s absolutely fine. There are also some babies who are more difficult than others – for example, those with reflux - who may battle to get into a routine with ease.
A routine can help parent and child
But for others, a routine can be an excellent way of achieving a sense of predictability – knowing what your baby is going to need next, and roundabout when they will need it. This not only good for the mom, says Faure, but for the baby too. “Having a set routine helps babies develop expectations of what is going to come next,” she says. “It helps them settle into the rhythm of daily life.”
Jacqui Flint of “Baby Love” agrees. Her company specialises in routine and sleep guidance for new parents, and she believes an age-appropriate routine helps babies feel secure and content, because they know what is coming next, and feel sure their needs will be met. “The benefits for parents are that they have some structure, which makes it easier to plan their lives, and they feel more confident and in control,” she says. “And of course, they feel more rested if the baby is sleeping well, so they can function to their optimum, whether as parent, spouse, friend or employee. Remember, your life doesn’t stop when you have a baby, it just changes!”
When to start a routine
As every baby is different, every routine should differ, and different babies will take more or less time to settle into one. “Different strokes for different folks!” Flint reminds us.
Some childcare experts advocate starting a fixed routine from day one – like British writer Gina Ford, whose “Contented Little Baby Book” has been a popular example of a very rigid routine, for thousands of moms.
But Faure disagrees with this approach, suggesting a little more time and flexibility is needed. In her opinion, a routine shouldn’t be implemented for the first few weeks, or it might interfere with the establishment of good feeding habits, and the mom’s breast-milk supply. She recommends starting a routine from the age of around six weeks, and becoming more rigid about it after the baby is six months old.
How do you do it?
It’s all about getting to know your individual baby, says Faure. “Every baby has its own internal clock which dictates how long they can happily be awake for, before they need to sleep again. It is very age specific and changes as they grow – for example, a newborn generally cannot stay awake happily for more than 45 minutes to an hour, while a one-year-old will happily manage three to four hours of awake time.”
In addition to this, every baby has a different response to sensory stimuli in their environment. Some are more sensitive than others, and will need a stricter routine to ensure they aren’t left awake too long and absorbing too much information from the world around them, leaving them over-stimulated and unable to settle into sleep. Other babies are less sensitive and more relaxed, and can take in a great deal more sensory information before they become upset. These babies can have a more flexible routine with less precise sleep-times.
The key thing, says Faure, is learning which signals to watch for. “About ten minutes before their awake-time is up, babies will start indicating through specific body signals that they are ready to go to sleep. These can include general fussing and niggling, rubbing the eyes or ears, sucking the thumb or fist, or even hiccupping. These signals are your baby’s way of telling you they are ready to be put down to sleep”.
Once you’ve picked up these signals, take your baby to their sleep area and settle them into their cot. Reduce the sensory input in the room by drawing the curtains and turning off lights, and perhaps play some soothing music or white noise on a CD. Newborns can also be swaddled or older babies put into a sleeping bag. Give your baby their feed if it is feeding time, and if they fuss, pat them gently, but don’t pick them up. “If you have read their signals correctly and in time, they should fall asleep with ease,” says Faure.
Why is daytime sleep important?
Some parents believe that a child who sleeps too much in the day, won’t sleep at night. But daytimes sleeps are essential, says Flint. "The success of your baby's night, and ultimately your night, is dependant on the success of your baby's daytime routine. A baby who doesn't sleep enough during the day and at night, is an unhappy baby who may not feed properly and meet his milestones."
Following a flexible routine will help ensure your baby gets enough sleep during the day and night, which in turn means that their awake-time will be quality time for them to start interacting with the world and responding to stimuli. A contented and refreshed baby will also feed well, ensuring their full kilojoule intake is met and their growth remains on track. With both of you rested and refreshed, you can enjoy the parenting journey and spend quality time together, knowing your baby is thriving in a loving and predictable environment.
Sidebar – Routines and PND
Having a baby settled into a routine can have a huge impact on the onset and severity of Post-Natal Depression (PND). This syndrome can set in at any time during your baby’s first year, and usually involves feelings of frustration, irritability and lack of control, as well as sadness, anxiety and a feeling of being unable to cope. Symptoms can include mothers having difficulty sleeping, loss of libido, and even thoughts about harming your baby or yourself.
Lack of sleep is a key factor in PND, so having a baby settled into a predictable night-time routine can make all the difference. Having a manageable daytime routine which allows you to do other things while your baby sleeps, can also help moms feel more in control of their lives.
For more information on Post-Natal Depression, contact PNDSA on 021 797 4498 or www.pndsa.co.za, or call their national helpline 082 882 0072
Don’t be too hard on yourself or the baby – getting a routine right takes time and practice, and cannot be forced.
By Megan Faure