For the first few months with my daughter, Annabel, I played every day by ear instead of keeping her on a baby schedule. We ran errands, visited friends and took walks while I breastfed on the go, and she’d nap in the car or carrier. But she only catnapped, and rarely slept for more than four hours at a time, even at night. Especially at night. Needless to say, our whole family was sleep deprived.
After six months of winging it — as much as I loved our spontaneity — I couldn’t handle the lack of sleep anymore. So I implemented a baby schedule, putting Annabel down to nap twice a day (once in the morning, once in the afternoon). It didn’t stick right away, but by the time she was eight months old, she was napping regularly and sleeping through the night. Halle-freakin’-lujah.
There was a trade-off: I was housebound, with no more coming and going as I pleased. I had to schedule our days around nap times and give up evening outings. With a baby schedule, life became more regimented, but Annabel was sleeping and eating better, and I was less exhausted, which made it worthwhile.
Shannon Hilton, a fellow Calgarian and a mom of three, had the opposite experience. Her first daughter, Abby, arrived eight weeks early and spent the first month in the hospital, with a schedule set by the nurses. When Hilton brought Abby home, they kept to it. “She was pretty stuck in her routine, and since she was my only child at the time, I could work around her,” Hilton recalls. But when Bella came along two years later, sticking to a baby schedule wasn’t realistic and felt too stressful. Instead, Hilton responded to Bella’s cues for feeding and sleep whenever they happened. Things got even more lax when Charlie arrived, three years later. With different daily activities for his sisters, he had to just go with the flow. “It wasn’t really a conscious decision not to follow a set routine,” she says. “It was just about trying to make things as calm as possible, and still live my life. What works best for us is flying by the seat of our pants.”
Hilton’s kids were adaptable, and she sees no lasting, negative effects. Routines can help prepare children to make transitions such as sleeping on their own and, later, going to school. But parenting experts offer competing philosophies when it comes to sticking to a schedule. Some kids — and parents — go crazy without it. “There is much debate about how routines should develop — as a response to the baby’s cues, or should the adult set the routine?” says Joanne Baxter, associate professor in the department of child and youth studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. Babies with a strong regularity trait will develop routines easily, while others just don’t take to them.
“From personal experience, I can say there is no simple answer,” Baxter adds. “My two children were very different in temperament, so what worked for one didn’t necessarily work for the other. The advantages to routines are that parents will know that the child has been fed, changed and has slept, and can better monitor their child’s needs.” It’s much easier to catch an anomaly if baby has a routine to compare against. “But it can also be stressful — for all — to impose a schedule,” says Baxter, noting that it can go against your baby’s natural rhythms. And it’s a serious commitment to live life by the clock.
For many parents, the best approach is somewhere in the middle. I do bend the rules for big family gatherings, because I want Annabel, who’s now two-and-a-half years old, to be a part of the experience (even if it means she might be “off ” the next day). It’s a balancing act. It depends on whether straying from the schedule today is worth tomorrow’s meltdowns.
This article appeared in our May 2013 issue with the headline “Slave to the schedule,” p.60.