Baby Routines and Schedules: Do They Work?

By providing consistency in day-to-day activities, your child gains in many ways. Here’s how to make it work without stressing out.

From feeding to play to sleep, parents-to-be and new parents hear the word “schedule” with great, well, regularity. You don’t, however, need to watch the clock and do everything to the minute—or else!—in order to nurture a happy, healthy baby. That’s a recipe for stress. Better: Focus on the word “routine.”

Routines are things we do roughly in the same order at roughly the same time, in about the same way every day. You probably have your own routines for getting ready in the morning. (Or at least, you may have before a baby came along and seemed to upend your former life.)

Following routines can make your life less stressful and benefit your baby, too. Here are some ways they help.

1. Routines provide a solid base for learning and growing.

To learn and grow, your baby needs to feel secure. A key way this happens is by providing consistency in her life, so that she can expect that familiar events and people can be counted on to be there, day after day. From this basis of trust, your baby learns to relax when going to sleep, eating, and exploring the world through play. Security is, ultimately, the foundation for bonding and learning.

At first, your newborn needs to be fed on demand, and her sleep is disorganized. But during the first months, breast-feeding or bottle-feeding will settle into regular patterns, as will her napping routines. This makes it more likely she’ll get the basic nutrition she needs to grow well.

2. Routines help you adjust to your new lives.

At first, your newborn won’t seem to be paying any attention to your routines at all. It takes time for your baby to learn to associate her bed with sleep, tell night from day, and pick up on other sleep cues that help her get organized (and sleep through the night). Repetition helps this to happen.

Meanwhile, sticking with consistent ways of putting your baby to bed or feeding her help you cope better with sleep deprivation and fatigue. Having a routine gives you a plan, at least. Even when the day doesn’t go as expected, you can have some sense of organization.

3. Routines give your child a balance of structure and flexibility.

By having a routine to guide the day, your child learns what to expect. That helps make her less resistant to going to sleep at naptime or bedtime and less frantic about when she’ll get to eat next. Your goal should be to aim for a sweet spot between predictability and flexibility. If your child is really engaged in some kind of play, for example, you can easily delay lunch or a snack a little bit.

4. Routines help a child understand time.

Long before your child can read a clock, she develops an understanding of the pacing of a day. This builds her self-confidence, because she comes to know what to do in a given situation. For example, she’ll learn that brushing her teeth comes before bedtime, and she’ll be able to do it with less prompting as she gets older. Knowing what to expect also lessens power struggles as your child recognizes that things happen because of the day’s order, not your arbitrary whims. As she grows, this makes it easier to transition to new routines and stages too.

5. Routines reinforce social skills, safety, and nutrition.

Embedded in routines are life lessons about how we proceed in our day-to-day lives. For instance, they reveal the most basic social graces (like “hello” and “please”), outline safety rules (such as buckling up before driving), reinforce what’s healthy to eat, and teach when to wash hands.

How recent research confirms the idea that if you’re not at your best, your baby can’t be at her best.

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