Have you ever thought to yourself, “if I can just get my baby onto the right schedule everything will fall into place”? Did you then find yourself feeling incredibly frustrated when it didn’t work out to be so simple?
Don’t worry, we’ve been there too.
When it comes to our children’s sleep, trying to follow strict, time-based schedules can actually make things so much harder for us as parents. Still, one of the most common pieces of advice given to parents to manage their child’s sleep patterns is to get them on a generic schedule that’s strictly based on their age.
The concern we have with schedules is that more often than not, they give us a false sense of control. We start to believe that if we can achieve the desired schedule that somehow we will have full control over when our baby sleeps, feeds, wakes, and so on. One of two situations typically happens. Either we manage to get our baby on the schedule we were working towards but they are still not sleeping how we thought they would be leaving us feeling frustrated and anxious OR we spend so much time trying to achieve the desired schedule without success and again, we are left feeling frustrated and anxious.
When trying to force a schedule, essentially what happens is that we end up spending more time watching the clock and stressing over the minute hand, rather than tuning into what our baby really needs from us. Watching the clock as parents doesn't serve us as we expect it to. Instead of enjoying the freedom a schedule is supposed to be giving us, we end up spending far too much time trying to convince our children to sleep. The problem is that sleep is a vulnerable state and we cannot force our little ones to sleep, and neither can a schedule. When we are left feeling anxious about sleep, so are our children. If our little ones can sense that we are not feeling good about it, sleep will become even more unattainable. You can see how things really start to unravel!
Let us give you an example.
If we have decided that it is nap time because of our schedule, but our child is not physically ready for sleep we may end up spending an hour bouncing and rocking our little one before they actually surrender to sleep. This leaves us feeling defeated and frustrated, which means our baby will pick up on this as they tune into our energy and mirror our emotion. This can create negative emotional associations with sleep - the very last thing we want. We also have just wasted an hour that we could have been outside going for a walk, or snuggling and reading books together.
So if we think schedules can cause more harm than good, what do we recommend to the families we provide support to in the place of this?
Let go of watching the clock and feeling the need to be in full control of your baby’s schedule.
Free yourself from the minute hand.
Find your rhythm.
Instead of obsessing over a schedule, tune into your baby and take the time to get to know what flows naturally for them. Spend time learning and becoming familiar with the cues they give you to express that they may be ready for sleep. Every baby is so different and we cannot expect them to all have the same sleep needs. What works for one six month old may not work for the next, but if you spend time synchronizing with your little one it is amazing what you might discover!
Finding a rhythm with your baby is far more important than implementing a strict schedule, but how do we do this? What it all comes down to is not watching the clock, but watching your baby.
Rather than structuring your day based on time, finding a pattern can serve you in a much more positive way. Rhythm allows for a natural and instinctual flow to your day and can make it much easier to routinely meet your children’s needs. When you flow almost automatically from one part of your day to the next, it takes the guesswork out of anticipating their needs and makes transitions into sleep much less stressful.
To build a rhythm, decide what you want your day to day activities to consist of and then guide your baby through those activities as it flows naturally. Then build in consistent, enjoyable and connection filled routines to guide you through transitions into sleep. If you generally wake up and nurse your baby then transition to the living room for some play, then you already have the beginning of your rhythm established! So for example, instead of deciding baby will wake at 7, eat at 7:30, go out side at 8 and nap at 9 as the start to their day, you can still do all of those things but simply follow that pattern, but by also transitioning as it comes naturally. This way we are not rushing or forcing activities or sleep making the day more enjoyable for everyone.
A big part of building a rhythm is routines. A routine offers predictability, for both babies and parents, while also making room for flexibility and fun. The more in tune to rhythms we become and the more routines that are in place, the less stress there is which benefits both mom & baby. When you see that your little one is showing you their unique tired cues, you can easily move into the routine for nap or bedtime when they are ready. This makes transitions to sleep much easier for everyone rather than trying to force it at a specific time when your child may not be not quite ready.
When routines are in place it makes it easier for everyone. When we are confident in our routines we can lead our child through them to transition to sleep without feeling stressed. The predictability that consistent routines provide help our children to know that sleep is coming also while providing a sense of security. Routines can be anything we want them to be, but most importantly, they should be filled with connection.
One great thing about rhythms is that they can evolve with you, they are easier to adjust. When we follow a schedule we are tied to the clock and therefore we have much less flexibility than when we follow a pattern throughout the day. This becomes especially important as your baby's needs change. When following a pattern it is easier to stay tuned into your child's needs and tune into what is working for them rather than trying to have them follow a one-size-fits-all schedule. As your child develops and changes you can more easily tune into their needs as they adjust day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month.
Again, this will allow you to spend more time on tuning in to and meeting their needs rather than setting generic expectations for them that can lead to anxiety and frustration when that isn't what works naturally for your family!⠀
So our advice to you - find your rhythm, establish your routines and free yourself from watching the minute hand on the clock.