Routines (for babies who don’t sleep like machines)

It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure this out. In fact, I didn’t realise I’d actually figured out what works for our family until someone recently asked me some questions about routines, in relation to a 30 minute catnapping baby.

But first, this has to be addressed: Gina Ford. Man, oh man. She really messed with my first time mommy head. And to a lesser degree: The Baby Whisperer. Her wildly popular EASY routine sounded flexible and easy enough but was actually really difficult for an inexperienced mother like me to implement, and with a 30 minute catnapper… it was almost impossible. Also: every parent on the internet who apparently had a baby who was able to nap and wake up at the same time every day? Wow. That blew my mind. “My baby takes a nap at 9.15am, and wakes at 10.45pm. He drinks 180ml, plays on his mat for half an hour, and naps again at 12.20pm… How would you suggest I tweak his schedule?” The forums are full of such mythical babies who function with military precision and come equipped with On and Off switches.

Granted, Gina Ford type babies do exist. I’m sure they do. In fact, they may represent the majority of babies, for all I know! But Michael wasn’t one. In fact, for the first two months, he was just doing whatever he pleased during the day, and making both of us miserable. For sure, a lot of this had to do with me being utterly clueless. I didn’t know how to put a baby to sleep, how to organise the feedings, etc. Half the time I had no idea if he was tired or hungry or just colicky. I was desperate for some order to be established, yet in despair over the fact that my baby was never going to demonstrate any kind of consistency whatsoever. (Which wasn’t true. At the very least, he ended up being absolutely consistent with his 30 minute naps – a sorry situation which I’ve previously documented in detail.)

Anyway, for what it’s worth, this is what I’ve learned about flexible routines through trial (much trial) and error. Applicable especially if your baby gets up for the day at random times and naps for an inconsistent duration each time. (By the way, if your baby is just a few weeks old, none of this is going to apply, I’m afraid. Just hang on for dear life and do whatever you can to stay afloat.) The obvious disclaimer here is that this has worked for me on the grand total of one baby (a certain Michael Dean Lee) and I am hardly an expert. But, it has worked. Disclaimer over. So here we go:

1) Abandon the notion that you will be able to get your baby to do the same thing at the exact same time every day. You can make a guess as to what’s going to be happening at 11am tomorrow, but you’ve probably got to give or take an hour. Which is the reason why nailing a mommy friend down for a lunch date can be slightly harrowing. “It depends on his nap” is something you will find yourself uttering often. And this is fine. Welcome to the wonderful world of routine unpredictability! You will learn to roll with it, maybe even secretly enjoy it. In any case, fear not – it’s not all chaos and anarchy. Read on!

2) Embrace EASY for what it’s meant to do – teach your baby how to sleep without the aid of feeding – and ditch the rest. In other words, EASY is only useful up to the EA part. As long as you manage to keep your baby awake sometimes (or better yet, most of the time) after a feed, consider that a job well done. If you end up with something that looks like EASAES (a shout-out to all mommies of 30 minute catnappers) that’s fine! If your baby is anything below 6 weeks, I would say don’t even sweat it at this point – the little one is going to be sleeping right after (or during) his feed no matter what you do.

3) Only set feedings by the clock. Assuming, of course,  you are past the horrific newborn stage of endless feedings at random or, conversely, fixed-in-stone intervals. In which case, hang on for dear life (again) and just feed when hungry, until your baby settles down into a natural fixed feeding pattern and can go for longer hours before melting down for his milk. (3-4 months, I would say.) Right now, Michael has a bottle when he wakes (any time between 5.30am and 7am), and then at 9am (bottle), 12pm (solids), 4pm (solids), and 7.15pm (bottle). No matter what time he wakes in the morning, we try to stick to these times, save the occasional exception (he overruns his naps and we feed late, or he fights his nap and it’s getting too close to a feeding so we feed him early and put him to sleep on a full stomach). Why set feedings by the clock? Coz mama needs some consistency. And truth be told, so does baby.

4) The Key to All Things: managing your baby’s awake time. I believe this is the foundation for every routine, and it’s still the only thing I really actively manage throughout Michael’s day. Mismanage this part and both me and my baby are in for a world of pain! Generally, young babies have pretty consistent awake/activity times. (The “A” in the EASY.) A quick google search will give you an indication of how much awake time a typical baby of a particular age can handle, and the flip side of the same coin – how long it takes to tire him out before he will be ready for his next nap. I’ve found the timings to be quite accurate when it comes to Michael. Accurate to 15 minutes, in fact, back when he was about 4 months old. If we overran his awake time by more than 15 minutes, we had a perfect storm on our hands.

So while feedings are set by the clock, nap times are set by awake intervals, and both operate independently of each other. For example, if Michael wakes for the day at 5.30am (welcome to motherhood, right?) I feed him, and take note that he will likely be sleepy in about 2 hours, and ready for a nap at 7.30am. Assuming he wakes up from that nap at 9am, I give the second feeding, and project that he will be ready for his next nap around 11.30am (his awake times stretch as we go into the day). At 11.30am, I judge if he is sleepy enough to sleep despite it being half an hour from lunch. If yes, I put him down. If not, I bring lunch forward, feed him at 11.45am and then put him down immediately after. If he then wakes from his nap at 1pm, I work out the next nap to be around 4pm. And so on. If the feed and sleep times happen to clash, then I always feed first and then put down to sleep. Which brings me to…

5) Learn how to put your baby to sleep. You can control the E and the A easily enough without even trying, but if you can’t control the S and make it happen when it should, then… well… that sucks and I’m so sorry. Really. It’s so harrowing when a baby doesn’t sleep when he should. Thankfully, for all his napping quirks, Michael has always been moderately easy to put to sleep. His sleepy signs are easy to read – yawning (although that’s not always accurate), glazed and tired eyes, getting cranky. So while the awake intervals are pretty consistent, the proviso is that I still have to watch out for sleepy signs and put Michael down only when I’m quite sure that he’s tired (but not too tired) and ready for a nap. Especially true the older they get. Learning how to put your baby to sleep is really a whole other post, and every baby is different. You just gotta keep trying, keep training, keep figuring it out. Again, welcome to motherhood!

6) The Final Nap. This is the one nap that I am most mindful of. Michael typically sleeps one longish nap of 1.5-2 hours in the morning, then a 30 minute catnap right after lunch, and then a final 30 minute catnap before bedtime. It is the final catnap which is the most crucial in ensuring a successful bedtime at 7.45pm. First rule: he naps no longer than 30 minutes (which is anyway a non-rule because he never sleeps longer than 30 minutes at this time). If he sleeps too long, he’s too rested to go down well at night. Second rule: his current awake time before bed is optimally around 3 hours. Which means that preferably he goes down for his final nap at 4pm and wakes at 4.30pm. The latest I ever let him go is 5.30pm.

The reason why this is an important nap to manage is obvious – bedtimes are sacred. You want it to go smoothly, and for that to happen you want him really tired. And yet – the second reason why this is important – you don’t want him screamingly exhausted. Late in the day, babies are generally worn out (hence, the infamous colicky witching hour). So, the final nap has to be timed well, for everybody’s sanity. Every day, everything is geared towards achieving this. By late morning I can more or less predict what I have to do to ensure the final nap happens at the right time. Just a simple mathematical calculation. If I judge from the way things are going that he’s headed for a nap at 3pm (the absolute worst time, because that means he will wake at 3.30pm and won’t be tired enough to sleep by 5pm, which means that will be the final nap of the day, yikes!) I try my best to adjust things so that he gets a better final nap. Either bringing forward the 3pm nap by strolling him – easiest way to make him sleep when he’s not very sleepy – or delaying it till 4pm (he will be grumpy but he’s old enough now to deal with it).

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Which all sounds terribly complicated. But that’s just because it takes many words to explain something quite common sensical, which is: feed your baby at fixed times and put him down to sleep when he’s actually sleepy. Forcing your baby to sleep when he’s not at all sleepy is an exercise in futility, and conversely, trying to keep him awake when he’s overtired leads to tragedy. Trust me, I and others before me have tried and suffered the consequences! A good routine should result in a happyish baby who is getting enough rest but not so much that his bedtime is sabotaged.

And that, my friends, in approximately 203921 words, is what I took months to figure out. What parents have been doing for ages before all those baby books existed. I am not proud of this. Can I blame Gina Ford? I’m going to blame Gina Ford.

Next post: A day in the life of a 10 month old named Michael Dean!

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