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Do babies need schedules?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  July 29, 2012 11:31 AM

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It's a question I'm often asked by parents in my practice: does my baby need to be on a schedule?

And as with so much in medicine and parenting, the answer is a resounding...maybe.

Babies do have and need schedules of sorts. They need to eat regularly (usually around every 2-4 hours, depending on whether they are breast-or formula-fed) and sleep (around 16-18 hours a day sometimes). In between and around those, they need diaper changes. And when they are awake and alert, it's good to interact with them--and get in some tummy time.

But do all those things need to happen at the same time every day? Probably not, with some caveats. 

There are definitely upsides to schedules--they give a certain order and predictability to life and can make it easier to plan your day (those baby nap times can be pretty darn crucial if you want to get anything done at all!). And there are some babies--and some parents--that really do need that predictability; they get very cranky without it.

There are downsides, though. I've seen families become slaves to schedules. They miss out on things they might like to do, and people they might like to see, because they need to be home for a feeding or a nap time. It can leave parents feeling constrained and isolated. And when something happens that throws the schedule off--like an appointment that runs late or an unexpected plumbing problem--it can be very stressful.
There are also some, well, realities to take into account. It's not so hard to make a schedule when you have one child and either no job or a very predictable job and childcare arrangement. When you throw another kid into the mix--especially when there are school drop-offs and pickups and activities involved--or when your job has variable hours or your childcare is different from day to day, schedules can become really challenging.

My husband and I are raising five kids. Poor Liam, our youngest, had no hope of having a set schedule. Sometimes naps were catnaps and meals were divided up into snacks. There were long days at swim meets or marching band competitions when he was toted around in a sling for hours. Some days went well, some less well. But he survived just fine.
Total chaos isn't good for anyone, and being a slave to a schedule isn't either. Somewhere in the middle is best. Where you fall in that middle is going to depend on your particular family situation, as well as your baby's personality (and yours).

I do think that it's good to build some routine into your day. It's helpful to you, and having some predictable routines is good for kids mentally and physically. Personally, I like the idea of morning and nighttime routines. 

In the morning, it's good to build in some snuggling, a good breakfast, and regular getting dressed and organized routines; having a good start to the day makes a big difference and will make it easier for going to childcare or when your child starts school. And at night, I love family dinner, a bath with some playtime, and some more snuggling (with books, once baby is 6 months old or so) with a consistent bedtime. That also sets the stage for healthy habits as your child grows--and builds in rituals of togetherness.

But in between...I vote for flexibility. Yes, you need to be sure your baby eats and sleeps enough. But give yourself some wiggle room. Don't turn down an invitation or give up a chance for something you'd love to do because it would get in the way of a nap or meal. It's good for your baby to learn to nap in a stroller or sling or in the car--and meals can be portable. If you're happy, Baby is likely to be happy--and especially in that second half of the first year, babies often really enjoy seeing and doing new things. 

The thing is, the best moments in life are often unscheduled. It all goes by so fast. Enjoy it.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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