Getting your baby into a routine that consists of regular naps, feeds, and fun activities can make those unpredictable days a little easier.
WORDS CHRISTEL GERALYN GOMES
As adults, most of us fear the unknown. Big changes in life can be very scary, stressful or both, and babies are no different. Your child is confronted with an overwhelming number of new and different things each day – and all of these are wonderful opportunities for growth. However, this can also be overwhelming, and children, like the rest of us, need some of life to be predictable in order to feel safe and relaxed. For a baby, anything from a suspicious new food to a different shampoo is part of the unknown, and establishing the familiarity of routines in your child’s life will make life easier for both baby and you!
“Routines give predictability to a baby’s day. In the early years, where days are packed with new challenges and learning, routine provides structure and comfort, and guards against being overwhelmed,” says Dr Preethi Chandrasekaran, associate consultant in the Department of Neonatology at the National University Hospital. Karen Ruskin, Psy.D., author of The 9 Key Techniques for Raising Respectful Children Who Make Responsible Choices says, “Babies develop a sense of safety and trust when they have good, solid routines”. That feeling of safety, trust and love is very important for the emotional development of the child who will remember those early childhood imprints and react to the world as a safe, reliable place instead of responding with fear.
But it’s not just the baby who benefits. “Baby routines are just as important for caregivers as they are for babies,” adds Dr Chandrasekaran. Why? Your baby is likely to be a visibly calmer and easier child with a routine in place. Jamie Wong (not her real name) recalls the first time she took her infant daughter Mei on holiday. “Mei was a fairly easy, adaptable and calm baby so I expected that the trip would be smooth. But a couple of missed naps, and a couple of altered feeding times in the first couple of days of our trip and my little angel turned into a screaming, inconsolable little tyrant. It was an exhausting trip and I had no idea what was wrong! It took a few days but as soon as we reestablished her routine, she very quickly fell back into her sweet old self! That was a lesson I won’t soon forget!”
“Although babies have simple needs, knowing when to provide what through an established routine gives rise to a happier baby and less stressed parents. A good routine is one that you and your baby find soothing and enjoyable,” says Dr Chandrasekaran.
Good Routines to Have
According to Dr Sharmila Rengasamy, paediatric registrar at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, “The feed-play-sleep routine is the core structure of a baby’s day at any age. When your baby is awake, offer a feed, change your baby’s nappy, take time for talk and play, and put your baby back down to sleep.”
Newborns don’t have an established circadian rhythm and may sleep for long hours during the day only to wake up at night. Teaching the difference between night and day will save you sleepless nights and headaches as time goes by. A good way to start would be to keep the house bright and noisy during the day. Change baby’s clothes in the morning and at night and incorporate a pre-bedtime bath with sleep-inducing smells such as lavender. During the nightly feed, talk very softly or not at all to put your baby in a calm, sleepy state. In the morning, contrast this with a happy voice, talking louder and more actively.
In the beginning, most experts will suggest that you let your baby tell you when he’s hungry and feed him as much as he needs. Do not force more or less food on him. However, as your baby grows, Dr Rengasamy says that sitting down for fixed mealtimes is one of the most important routines that can benefit family life. “Have your infant join you when he or she begins eating solids. Sitting down together helps your baby develop healthy eating habits, as well as language and social skills,” she says.
It’s Not Set in Stone
Does this mean that you should force a routine on your baby as soon as you can? Certainly not! In the first months of life, it may be better to let baby tell you what he needs and create routines around his natural cycles. Be responsive to baby’s needs so that he will learn that the world is a place where his needs are met and he does not need to resort to tantrums to be cared for.
According to Dr Rengasamy, “There is no standard time for starting any routine. Babies generally start to follow a predictable pattern of feeding and sleeping by about six to eight weeks. Parents should start with simple routines for their newborns and add more routines or more complexity to a routine as the child adapts. For example, parents could start with a simple nighttime routine for their newborns, adding on regular play time by about three to four months and then regular feeding and sleeping times from about six to nine months. What routine, and when it is introduced, depends on how ready the baby and the parents are.”
What you can do is make conditions appropriate for the times when you want him to sleep, but start out by adding those conditions to his natural rhythm first. “Babies will be more relaxed if they know what’s coming next. The more relaxed a baby is, the more likely it will be that he’ll go to bed easily and fall asleep quickly. There are a number of things you can try for this routine, including giving your baby a bath, a massage, read a bedtime story or sing a song”, says Dr Rengasamy.
When to Start?
Every baby is different, but as a general guide, “Babies are ready to start on routines between two to four months of age. In general, a baby’s sleeping and feeding habits become more consistent after three to four months,” Dr Rengasamy tells us.
Flexibility is Everything
While routines are generally a good thing, making a routine into a rule can be the opposite of healthy. Be careful not to dull your child’s sense of spontaneity, adventure, and creativity. Frances Yeo, psychologist at Thomson Medical Centre says, “We want to train our child to adapt to changes to the environment, not vice versa. It is also not realistic for anyone to follow a strict routine. As part of normal development, children will exert their independence.”
Dr Chandrasekaran agrees. “Children start exerting their independence during toddlerhood. Letting the toddler participate in making simple choices in the routine will encourage their autonomy while winning their cooperation. For example, while bedtime is not negotiable, a toddler can choose what book he may want to read before bedtime.”
If your toddler has had a difficult day and wants a longer nap, let her have it. If there’s an eclipse or a family favourite on television, bend the rules and let bedtime be a little later that night. Let structure define your child’s life only so much that it is productive, not oppressive. Remember that many of us wish we learnt earlier, that rules are often made to be broken!