Sleep Routines

Erica Neser is a UNICEF-trained Breastfeeding Consultant and Infant Massage Instructor with the International Association of Infant Massage. She has a BA degree in Psychology, and is trained as an Aromatherapist, Postnatal Depression Group Leader and Infant CPR Instructor. She has been featured in radio talks, contributes to baby and women’s magazines and often speaks at parenting workshops and to groups of health professionals. She has been working as a breastfeeding consultant and teaching baby massage at two busy baby clinics for ten years. She is the co-author of the IAIM (South Africa) Baby Massage Parents’ Manual. She lives in Stellenbosch with her three young children, who have all learnt to sleep well.

Getting Your Baby Into A Sleep Routine

by Erica Neser, author of Sleep Guide for Babies and Toddlers
(Protea Books, 2006)

Is your baby in a routine yet?” You’ve probably heard this question too many times. Every week at our baby clinic I see mothers who are distressed and worried about the fact that their newborn baby has no predictable routine. There seems to be a general expectation that babies should be in a firm sleeping and feeding routine right from birth. Perhaps it is wise to think about how important routine is in your own life, and whether this expectation is realistic.
Some babies start their lives on the outside with a four-hourly feeding routine, and sleep from one feed to the next. Parents are thrilled that their baby has settled into a routine so quickly. The fact is that most babies spend their first two weeks sleeping off their ‘pregnancy hangover.’ This sets up the expectation with the parents that things will be like this for keeps. After two weeks, the wheels come off, and all their efforts to get baby back into this convenient pattern are in vain. Don’t panic – this is normal.

If you are a ‘routineless’ person like me, you may find it really hard to give your children any kind of routine. If, on the other hand, you are used to routine, you may find your baby’s seemingly haphazard routine very distressing.

I believe that routine is important for babies and children. They do seem to thrive on predictability. It gives them a sense of security and helps them to know what to expect. Having said that, I believe that a young baby cannot be forced into a routine. Babies develop their own rhythm in the first few weeks and months, and one of your tasks as a parent will be to become aware of your baby’s unique rhythm, and use that as a basis for your daily routine. The following tips may help you make sense of your baby’s emerging rhythms:

Tips on getting baby into a sleep routine

– Plan your day (and outings) around your baby’s sleep times (as opposed to her feeding times). Anticipate when she will need to nap and work around that.

– Try to avoid interrupting baby’s naps.

– Try to be home for at least one long nap each day.

– Babies get tired very quickly. The following table will help prevent you avoid over-tiredness in your baby. (Keep in mind that every baby is unique and some babies will sleep quite a bit more or less than indicated below. If your baby sleeps a lot less than the average amount, but is happy and content, don’t worry!)

Baby’s age Awake time
between naps
Average amount of sleep in 24h
0-6 weeks 40 – 60 minutes 6 – 8 hours 8 hours 14 – 16 hours
6-12 weeks 60 – 80 minutes 5 – 7 hours 8 – 10 hours 15 hours
3-6 months 1 ½ hour 3 – 5 hours 10 – 11 hours 14 – 15 hours
6-9 months 2 hours 2 – 3 ½ hours 11 hours 14 hours
9-12 months 2 ½ hours 1 – 3 hours 11 hours 13 – 14 hours

(Adapted from Babysense by Megan Faure & Ann Richardson, p.37 and
Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber (p. 19)])

– Catch the sleep wave – watch out for signs of tiredness and put baby down to sleep when you see that she is sleepy.

– Try to establish an early bedtime (6-8 p.m.) for babies over 6 weeks (babies under 6 weeks have a naturally later bedtime).

– Try to develop a soothing bedtime routine to give baby a chance to relax and wind down before sleep time. This may include a bath, massage, reading a story, singing lullabies, feeding, and cuddling.

– Where possible, try to keep baby’s weekend routine similar to her weekly routine.

– Routine helps to set baby’s “biological clock.” Try to keep to regular feed- and sleep times, and try to keep events like baths, massage, walks in the pram, etc. at more or less the same time each day. (This does not imply the strict four-hourly feeding routine. Most babies need to be fed more often than that.)

– Don’t worry if you have no sleep routine for the first 6 weeks. Babies this young don’t have a fully developed circadian (day-night) rhythm yet. Circadian rhythm slowly starts developing between 6 and 16 weeks.

– Most babies switch day and night in the first weeks. They like to sleep all day and then wake up every hour during the night. This problem usually corrects itself. You can help establish a day-night routine by differentiating night and day – keep the environment quiet and dark during the night, and light and active during the day.

General Tips

– Remember to adapt your routine as your baby grows. A newborn’s routine will be very different from that of a six-month-old baby.

– Try not to be rigid about routine – you’ll have to be flexible at times.

– Changes in your routine (going on holiday, moving house, etc.) will probably upset baby’s sleep routine. This is especially true for babies between four and six months. It may be wise to keep as many elements of your baby’s normal routine during the disrupted phase, such as his bedtime routine. Try to keep to his usual awake times between daytime naps as well.

– Try to return to your normal routine as soon as possible after the disruption.

– Accept that no two days will be identical. Just when you think you have it all figured out, things change! Be philosophical about this.

– Be realistic – your post-baby routine will be dramatically different from your pre-baby routine!

– Be gentle, be patient. Make gradual changes.

– You may think that a routine will restrict you, but it can actually make things easier for you because you can plan ahead for baby’s naptime. And when you do go out, baby is happy and well rested.

– If mum-and-baby classes, shopping, visiting friends, etc. interfere with baby’s naps every day, try to tone things down a little. Keep your daily routine simple and avoid too many hectic days.

– I have learnt this from my three children: if you disrupt their routine, they will disrupt yours!

Some people need a lot of structure and order to be content. Others prefer going with the flow. There is no right and wrong – you have to decide what works for you and your family. Don’t agonise and obsess about routine. It will come. Remember that getting to know your baby takes time. Establishing a routine takes time. Life takes time!

© Erica Neser 2006.

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