Baby sleep routines: the facts and the fallacies
Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Routines get a bad rap. There seems to be this general assumption that on a “routine” your baby is left to cry themselves to sleep, they are only fed when it is “feed time”, they are kept awake despite being tired. This seems to stem from some archaic form of parenting, a leftover from our parent’s generation or the one before where these sorts of routines were fashionable.
The truth is that in this day and age, “routines” are a whole new kettle of fish (or babies) simply because of what we now know, largely through science, about the way baby sleep works.
In this article we take a look at some common misconceptions surrounding "routines", or what we now refer to as Sleep Programs.
What on earth IS a Sleep Program and how is it different to the routines of old?
Our Sleep Program is a natural rhythm for your day which follows a baby's age-specific sleeping needs and changes as these needs mature and develop. Each Program is designed to work with a baby's circadian rhythm (or body clock) and harnesses their natural dips in energy to mean babies are sleeping at the right times and for the right lengths to lead to easy settling, decent napping and good night time sleep. It is not about forcing a baby to conform to a structure that doesn't suit their age, developmental stage or settling ability.
But my baby will sleep as much as they need to naturally, won’t they?
Not necessarily… I let my first child “go with the flow” sleep-wise when she was born, but major problems started creeping in around 4 weeks. She started to LOVE sleeping during the day, so much so she would then wake at 3 AM and lay there wide awake for hours because she actually just needed some awake time!
All babies within specific age ranges require a certain amount of total sleep hours in a 24-hour period. It is common sense then, that if a baby has too much of this total sleep in their daytime hours, they will naturally sleep less at night. So it is true to an extent that most babies will, if everything else is lined up right, sleep the perfect amount across that 24-hours... Often however they just need a helping hand to get those sleep hours happening at the right times so they’re not up partying all night long!
Naps aside, what are the benefits to my baby and me of following some sort of schedule?
Following a schedule or our Program lets you confidently respond to your baby's needs throughout the day. You always know what is happening next and how to soothe your baby - knowing if they're tired or hungry or just need some attention! The guesswork is taken out.
Having a more predictable rhythm to your day also means you‘re able to spot quite quickly when something is amiss. Once a baby is napping and feeding at the best times for their age you are able to spot other things that might be going on, which the Program can highlight - things like sickness, reflux, tongue or lip ties.
One thing our customers love about having their babies in a more structured approach to their day is that you can plan your own day around when your baby is going to be sleeping. You can make appointments for when the baby is awake, or go for walks or coffee with friends while the baby is sleeping, confident in when your baby will need to feed or sleep next.
Why should I feed my baby at the suggested times vs randomly throughout the day?
You can absolutely breastfeed on demand while still establishing some structure to your day! On-demand feeding is good for babies, even if it can be tough on mums.
We also have suggested feed times in the Programs if you need some more guidance. Naturally as your baby grows, milk feeds will turn into breakfast, lunch and dinner solids with snacks in between. Our Programs recommend the milk and solids feeds happen at certain times to ensure your baby will have a good feed and a full tummy for any naps. Feeding a baby right before her nap can mean she is too tired to take a decent feed and you can also develop a feed-to-sleep association; both factors can result in your baby not napping for a decent length of time.
We recently worked with a mum whose 6 month old baby was used to having her feeds right before her naps. She was a catnapper, not sleeping more than 45 minutes in a stint during the day and waking every 2 hours overnight. We talked her tired mum through the logic that the only way her baby actually knew how to go to sleep was by feeding. This had had a knock-on effect for her baby, meaning she was always tired during her feeds so she didn’t take enough milk to then allow her to sleep for longer stretches, even if she’d been able to put herself back to sleep between sleep cycles without needing to be fed to sleep again. After using our Sleep Program for just 4 days her baby totally changed her habits and was happily sleeping well in the day and at night.
Following a Program is NOT starving your baby. If they’re hungry before the next feed time of course you feed them!
But my baby can’t stay awake for long enough between naps to do any kind of routine.
Regularly we are answering this question! Often the tired signs people are going off are misleading and the general information available suggests awake times that are not very accurate. Many people think their babies are “tired” earlier than the suggested nap times and they’re being put to bed but are then catnapping or waking early from naps. Sound familiar? This is because young babies under 4 months will generally sleep after any amount of awake time if you do something to actively settle them such as feed, rock, or drive in the car. They can go to sleep but may not actually have been tired enough to sleep longer than 35-45 minutes. Babies have a natural dip in energy at around the 1-1.5 hour mark of being awake and can display tired signs here. They are getting tired but are not tired enough for a deeper more restorative sleep. Often just changing your activity or going outside is enough to revive your baby til their next nap. A baby who goes to bed under-tired will not sleep for very long! (See THIS article).
My baby also only catnaps and won’t nap for long enough, as per the nap times in the Program.
For a baby under 3 months, who has the perfect conditions for sleep (see THIS article), the reason for catnapping will be that they are over or under tired. Babies in that age range should be able to sleep for longer periods, all things considered, so having your baby follow a Program means you’re capturing the right times for sleep to allow them that good restorative nap. In babies over 3 months, self-settling starts becoming a factor in your baby’s ability to sleep longer than one sleep cycle. Having your baby follow our Program has a massive, positive effect on your baby’s ability to learn this skill - no baby will be able to self-settle if they’re not tired enough or too overtired to go to sleep.
But my baby is impossible to settle - I can’t get them into a routine.
If your baby is a struggle to settle it is likely they haven't been awake for long enough or have been awake for far too long. A baby who has a full tummy and is good and ready to sleep will settle very easily. Being on our Program takes out this guesswork. Once your baby is following the Program and all conditions are in place to allow your baby to nap well (such as swaddling, white noise, dark room), your baby should drift off nicely into la la land when it is time for sleep and it won't be a struggle at all or feel like you are forcing them into a “routine”.
I don’t want to be tied to the house following a routine.
Me either! There is nothing that says having more structure to your baby’s day means you’re under house arrest. In fact, the only nap we really encourage you to do in your baby’s actual bed is their lunch nap and that’s to ensure they have a good stretch of sleep at that nap (as it’s the more important one of the whole day). Their morning and afternoon naps (for younger babies) can easily be done on-the-go: carseat, stroller, frontpack.
So "routines"...? Not quite what they once were. Babies are not starving hungry on a routine these days. They are not sleep deprived, it is not sleep training. In our experience the vast majority of babies are happier, calmer, thriving. Of equal importance is that mum is a lot more confident, calmer and in control and getting some much needed sleep!
Who can argue with that?!
de Weerth, C., R.H. Zijl, and J.K. Buitelaar. Development of cortisol circadian rhythm in infancy. Early Hum Dev. 73(1-2): p. 39-52. 2003.
Iacovou, M., & Sevilla, A. (2013). Infant feeding: the effects of scheduled vs. on-demand feeding on mothers' wellbeing and children's cognitive development. European journal of public health, 23(1), 13–19. doi:10.1093/eurpub/cks012
Kitsaras, George et al. “Bedtime routines child wellbeing & development.” BMC public health vol. 18,1 386. 21 Mar. 2018, doi:10.1186/s12889-018-5290-3