The Question of Routine
Mary had been an executive, developing her career for ten years prior to the birth of her first baby. But this job of mothering was the hardest she had done in years.
She felt as though all she ever did was feed her baby and was dying to establish a routine so that there was some predictability to her day. The question is when is it reasonable to expect her baby to settle into a routine and how does one go about doing it.
In the first few weeks and months of motherhood, many are shocked by just how hostage one is kept by a little mouth, demanding to be fed every couple of hours. This doesn't bear any resemblance to the routines and schedules a person managed to keep prior to the birth of the baby. Just as you feel you understand your baby's routines and needs, everything changes again.
There are two main events that punctuate your day: feeding your baby and when your baby sleeps. These are the two events that many moms want to start to structure into some type of routine. Remember each baby is an individual and some may develop routines much earlier than others. If your baby was very small, born prematurely, is not gaining weight or is a high needs baby, these routines may only emerge later.
Feeding needs to be on a demand basis for the first six weeks. This is important for your baby's weight gain as well as the establishment of your breast milk supply. But as your baby gets older and your milk becomes established or if you are bottle feeding, a feeding routine of three to four hour feeds will emerge. Remember even at this stage, a growth spurt could signal a period of feeds that are closer together and less predictable. By six months when your baby is on a solids diet it is easier to implement a more predictable feeding routine.
Babies' sleep habits differ from adults in that they have period of time we call awake times, which are periods of time in which your baby can be happily awake. During this time he will be happy and interactive, learning from his environment. If this period is stretched, in other words your baby is kept awake for longer than his ideal awake time, he will become needy, easily over stimulated and generally irritable. In addition to this he will not naturally fall into a sleepy state and thus will be more difficult to get to sleep.
It is not a good idea to adhere to rigid, prescribed routines for young babies as these force babies to sleep at your convenience or at a predetermined time each day. If this time happens to be before his awake time is up, he won't want to fall asleep. But more commonly it is once he is overtired and the natural lull in his states has been missed. So being overtired and needy he is significantly more difficult to get to sleep.
An example of a rigid routine that is a recipe for an irritable baby and highly anxious mother is one where a two week old baby is forced to have a morning sleep at 9am, having woken at 7am. This would mean he must stay awake for two hours. The ideal 'awake time' for newborns is an hour at the most. Waiting two hours, just to stick to a predetermined time makes no sense, as newborns literally can't cope being awake this long. Furthermore, the baby may have woken at 6am in which case it would be a three hour stretch which is a recipe for a very irritable baby.
A baby-centric approach would be to have the guidelines of 'awake time' for each developmental age and then more importantly to learn to read your baby's signals. Practically this would entail watching the clock to see what time your baby woke and then make sure to watch that your baby goes down according to his 'awake times'. In addition to this you should watch for your own specific baby's signals. Signals that your baby is tired include rubbing eyes, sucking hands, touching ears, looking into space, drowsy eyes or many other self soothing strategies. When your baby shows the signs of drowsiness, he should be put down to sleep.
In this way, the baby dictates his sleep times in two ways: firstly according to developmental norms and then according to his own capacity for interactions, by signaling when he is tired. Being tuned to your own baby's needs will help you to put your baby down more easily and in that way establish healthy day sleep routines.
The best piece of advice for mums of new babies is to put your expectations behind you and to know that this early stage of unpredictable routine disappears faster that you would believe.
© Megan Faure 2008
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