Why should I have a schedule for my baby?
A baby's needs aren't that complicated – food, sleep, play, and love pretty much sums it up. But knowing what your baby requires when, and how much of it, can be a real challenge. Not to mention balancing your baby's needs with your own and those of older children and other family members.
Many parents find that getting into a regular routine or schedule with their baby makes life much easier: It's almost like developing a personalized how-to manual for your child. As a parent, you'll have a predictable pattern for your days with your little one. And your baby will know what to expect – for example, that she gets a bottle after her morning nap, then playtime or an outing.
"Babies like to know that [certain things will happen] at a certain time each day," says pediatrician Tanya Remer Altmann, editor-in-chief of The Wonder Years: Helping Your Baby and Young Child Successfully Negotiate the Major Developmental Milestones.
"When they're not sleep-deprived or hungry, it makes for a much happier baby. By meeting your baby's basic needs, you put her in the best frame of mind – and body – to learn about and explore her new world."
An added bonus: When you're ready to try leaving your baby with a sitter or caregiver, the transition will be easier. Your baby will be reassured by her usual routine, and your caregiver will be able to anticipate her hunger, sleepiness, or desire to play or go out.
When can I start?
Experts disagree on when and how to establish a routine – and even on whether you need a set schedule for your baby. (See "What are my options?" below.) But many experts, including Altmann, say that babies are ready for a general schedule between 2 and 4 months of age.
Most infants' sleeping and feeding habits become more consistent and predictable after three or four months, says pediatrician Marc Weissbluth, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. You may want to take this opportunity to encourage your baby to follow a more defined schedule.
Your baby may fall into fairly predictable patterns long before this, however. If that's the case, you can gently encourage your baby's emerging routine.
Tracking your child's eating, sleeping, and alert times can give you an understanding of his natural rhythms and enable you to pinpoint developing patterns. In the days following delivery, many parents begin to note when their baby feeds, when he poops and pees, when he sleeps and for how long, and so on.
To log your baby's daily routine, you can use a notebook and pen, a computer spreadsheet, or any number of great apps, like Trixie Tracker, Baby Bundle, or Feed Baby.
Some experts advocate starting a schedule much sooner. British maternity nurse Gina Ford, author of The New Contented Little Baby Book, offers a clock-driven schedule to begin when your baby is 1 week old. And "Baby Whisperer" Tracy Hogg offers a loose routine for parents to begin at birth.
No matter which approach you take, it's essential that your baby's well-being come first. That means following the advice of your baby's doctor, plus your gut feeling and common sense, to determine what your baby needs when – no matter what the schedule says.
During the newborn period, it's especially important that your baby get enough breast milk or formula to avoid problems like poor weight gain and dehydration. You should never withhold food or sleep when your baby seems to need it because it's "not the right time yet."
"Parents should follow their instincts about what their baby is trying to communicate," says Kathryn Akin, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Center at Tyler.
"Even though your baby may have eaten one or two hours ago, if she's crying as though she's hungry, you should follow that direction. If your schedule indicates that it's time for your baby to sleep, but she's fussier than normal and needs comforting before going down, then she should be comforted. No schedule should supersede the needs of your baby."
What are my options?
To make things easier, we've grouped baby scheduling methods into three main styles: parent-led, baby-led, and combination.
Parent-led schedules are the most strict. They may specify exactly when (and sometimes how much) your baby will eat, when he'll sleep and for how long, when he'll play or go out, and so on. The schedule may be one you create based on your baby's natural patterns or a suggested routine from an expert, but once it's set, it's very consistent – even down to the minute – from day to day. Well-known advocates of this style include British nurse Gina Ford and Gary Ezzo, author of On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep.
Baby-led schedules are the least defined kind of routine. You follow your baby's lead, meaning you'll look for his cues to decide what he needs next rather than imposing a timetable for feedings, rest, or play.
This doesn't mean your days will be totally unpredictable: After the first few weeks, most babies form their own fairly regular patterns of sleeping, playing, and eating. But your baby's schedule may vary from day to day depending on the signals he's giving you. Well-known advocates of baby-led scheduling include attachment parenting gurus William and Martha Sears (a pediatrician and registered nurse, respectively) and famed pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock.
Combination schedules bring together elements of both baby- and parent-led methods. With this approach, you'll have a timetable for when your baby will eat, sleep, play, and so on, and you'll generally stick to a similar pattern every day.
But you'll have more flexibility than with a strictly parent-led routine. A nap can be pushed back if your baby doesn't seem tired yet, and lunch can be postponed if a trip to the store takes longer than expected. Well-known advocates of this style include Tracy Hogg and "Supernanny" Jo Frost.
What works for other parents?
Check out our poll of parents and sample schedules for babies of all ages to see what works for other moms and dads.