In the early days after having my son, I felt like a duck out of water. I never knew if his cry meant hunger, wind, tiredness or something else, because they all sounded the same to me!
So when I found Little Ones, I was so thankful! We finally had some structure in our day and I gained a better understanding of when and how long my baby should be sleeping.
Routines sometimes get a bad rap but the truth is, babies love them. They are great for parents too as they take a lot of the guesswork out of your baby's day. With a consistent routine, you're able to respond more effectively to your little one, as you know when they’re likely to be hungry or tired.
There are lots of reasons why you might be considering starting a new sleep routine with your baby, or making some changes to their current routine. Perhaps you've grown tired of "going with the flow" and want some more consistency and predictability in your days. Or maybe your wee one has simply outgrown their old sleep schedule and it needs a bit of an update now.
In this article, I'm going to talk you through what to expect when starting a new sleep routine with your baby and how you can help to make this transition as smooth as possible!
In this article:
- What is a sleep routine?
- When should you start a sleep routine?
- How to change your baby's sleep schedule
- What is sleep consolidation?
- How long does it take to establish a good sleep routine?
- How to help your baby baby adjust to a new routine
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What is a sleep routine?
For some parents the word "routine" instantly brings to mind strict schedules that you have to stick to no matter what! Rest assured, that's not what we're talking about here...
When we talk about routines for sleep, we're talking about having a consistent and predictable rhythm for your day, which suits your baby's age-specific sleeping needs and changes as those needs mature and develop.
It is NOT about forcing your baby to fit into to a rigid structure that isn't appropriate for their age, developmental stage or settling ability.
The schedules in our Sleep Programs are designed to work with your baby's circadian rhythm (or body clock) to harness the natural dips in energy they have during the day. This helps to ensure that your baby is sleeping at the right times and for the right lengths, which leads to easier settling, consistent naps and a great night time sleep!
When should you start a sleep routine with your baby?
So you’ve made up your mind that something has to change, you’re all ready to go with your baby’s new sleep routine… but then you see a new tooth working its way through. Typical!
So you hit the pause button and think you’ll try next week, but then your baby gets a cold - which of course means the following week you have a cold too! You think to yourself, “Once everyone is healthy again, we’ll start the new routine”... but then you remember you’ve got a holiday coming up, so perhaps it’s better to wait until you come back.
Before you know it, your baby's new sleep routine (that you were SO ready to start!) has been pushed back another 3 months.
The truth is there is never going to be a PERFECT time to start a new routine with your little one because there is nearly always something going on: developmental leaps, vaccinations, sleep regressions, holidays, teething, daylight saving … I could go on.
Sometimes you just have to seize the moment and make it work for you here and now!
The only time you might want to avoid starting a new routine with your baby, or making any changes to their existing routine, is when they are sick. Making big changes at this time is likely to be a struggle for both of you, so wait until your baby is feeling better to get started.
How to change your baby's sleep schedule
Depending on what your wee one’s routine was like beforehand, you may only have a few minor adjustments to make or you may need to change a LOT.
Establishing a good sleep routine for your baby can involve making changes to:
- Your baby's sleep environment
- Their awake times and nap lengths during the day
- Their bedtime
- How you manage their overnight wakes
- Their morning wake up time
It can feel quite daunting BUT the good news is that you don’t need to tackle everything all at once. We generally recommend making changes in this order:
- Start by creating the optimal sleep environment for your baby with a dark room, white noise and a swaddle or baby sleeping bag. This alone can make a huge difference when it comes to your baby's settling and their ability to link sleep cycles.
- Next, focus on your baby's daytime sleep, working towards age-appropriate awake times and nap lengths. This will help to ensure they are getting the right balance of awake time and sleep during the day, in order to settle easily at bedtime and sleep well overnight.
- Lastly, if your baby is over 3-4 months of age, consider teaching them how to self-settle to sleep. This is often the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to achieving longer naps during the day and a longer stretch of sleep overnight.
What is sleep consolidation?
A few days into your new sleep routine, you may be disappointed that things aren't improving yet... in fact, it might even feel like your little one's sleep is getting worse!
You might experience:
- catnapping during the day
- waking early from their long lunch nap
- resisting settling at nap times or bedtime
- waking more frequently overnight or for long periods of time
- waking early in the morning
Don't worry, your baby isn't broken! They are experiencing what we call 'sleep consolidation'.
What's happening is your little one will have gotten used to the previous amount of sleep they were having, which might be significantly more or less sleep than they are having now. It's like hitting the "reset" button on their body clock, which can make them a little unsettled at first.
Whenever you change the balance of awake time and sleep that your baby is having during the day, this is going to have an impact on their nights as they re-consolidate their sleep and adjust to this new equilibrium.
And the same happens in reverse - if there is a sudden improvement in your baby's night sleep, don't be surprised if their naps take a bit of a hit the next day! Here's what the sleep consolidation process can look like:
The good news is, sleep consolidation is only temporary! Your baby needs a little bit of time to get used to their new routine but the more consistent you are, the quicker they will get there.
How long does it take to establish a good sleep routine?
When you start a new sleep routine with your baby, you might feel excited and energized at first, only to find yourself deflated a few days later when it seems like it's not working!
But establishing a good sleep routine doesn't happen overnight. There is a LOT going on behind the scenes for your little one and they do need some time to adapt. It can feel like a waiting game, but the key is to stay consistent and keep reminding yourself that their sleep WILL improve.
We generally recommend giving your little one at least 2 weeks to get used to their new routine. This is when you're most likely to experience the effects of sleep consolidation but the more consistent you are with your little one's nap times, the quicker this will pass.
Keep in mind too that if your baby is older, their sleep habits and patterns are going to be more ingrained so it may take them a bit longer to adjust to changes in their routine. The same applies if you are making significant changes to your baby's sleep patterns - the bigger the change, the longer it will take your little one to adjust.
How to help your baby adjust to a new routine
The number one most important thing you can do to help your baby adjust to a new sleep routine is to BE CONSISTENT with the changes you are making.
When it seems like things aren’t working, it can be very tempting to revert back to your old routine or to "go with the flow" again but remember - there was a reason you decided to make this change!
Your baby is going to be working really hard to reconsolidate their sleep, so the last thing they need is to have their routine changed again. Stay consistent and once the sleep consolidation passes, you should find that things start to click into place. And when that happens, I promise you'll be so pleased you stuck it out!
When you’re desperate for sleep, it can also be tempting to charge ahead and change everything all at once. While this can work for some babies, others are going to find it very overwhelming and difficult to process.
Unfortunately, there is no magic, overnight fix. Change happens over time. This is why we always recommend making one change at a time and, ideally, waiting at least a week before you change anything else. This gives your baby plenty of time to adapt and adjust, so you can see whether or not it's working for them.
If you want to establish a good sleep routine for your baby but aren't sure where to start, make sure to check out our comprehensive Sleep Programs. You'll get instant access to customisable schedules that evolve to keep up with your baby's changing sleep needs. Our expert sleep consultants are also available, day and night, to provide you with personalised guidance and support.