How to establish a baby schedule

Ok, I’m not sure why this is so hard. But it can be, especially if this is your first baby. Let me try and be clear.

Here’s the schedule:

  • Eat
  • Wake
  • Sleep

That’s it!

Just do this over and over throughout the day, in that order, on a three to four hour rotation, and your baby will be on a schedule.

Ok, now for some more detail…

A schedule starts with eating—you nurse or bottle feed. When the baby is done eating, you keep him up for as long as he can be happy. You play with him, bathe him, entertain him, whatever. Then when he gets fussy, you put him down for a nap. When he wakes up, you feed and the rotation starts again.

If you put some effort into it, this rotation should take roughly three to four hours. Younger babies are usually closer to three hours (two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half hours). Older babies are usually closer to four hours (three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half hours). Bottle fed babies can usually go longer, and nursing babies sometimes can’t go as long as bottle-fed babies until they are on solid food for awhile. But in general, a three to four hour eating rotation fulfills the needs of the baby’s stomach, your needs to make good milk (if you’re nursing), and facilitates good sleeping. Feeding more or less often can compromise these things.

NOTE: always err on the side of feeding too often for a nursing baby, in the early days. It is more important that they eat often (for calories and milk supply needs), then it is to get a schedule going. Usually by the time they are able to stay awake during a feeding, they are ready for a schedule to start.

That said, a rotation can help stabilize the newborn’s personality, if they are too passive (sleeps a lot, doesn’t wake up for meals) or if they are too hyper (fussy, colicky, or resisting sleep). I started as early as five days old for one of my babies who had their days and nights totally mixed up. And I would have started earlier for one of my babies who wanted to sleep almost all day and didn’t gain enough weight on his own rhythm.

A schedule for a little newborn depends on their particular temperament, but most of my little babies looked something like this in the earliest days: nurse for 30-40 minutes (hard to stay awake), then right back to sleep (1.5hrs). Eventually the baby was able to stay awake for a little bit after the feeding, so it looked like: nurse for 30-40 mins, awake for 10-30 mins, nap for 45-90mins. Then the baby was able to stay awake during the feeding, and the feeding started speeding up: nurse for 20-30 mins, awake 30 mins, nap for 45-90 mins. By the time the baby was able to nurse more quickly and wake up from his own naps without me either waking him up or trying to keep him asleep, the rotation looked like: nurse 15-30mins, awake 30-45 mins, nap for 90 mins. This was around the six to eight week mark, I think.

The goal was for the baby to get on an eat/wake/sleep schedule that looked like this: nurse 15-20mins, awake for 45-90mins, nap for 90mins. So a total rotation of 2.5 to 3.5 hours. Most of them reached this point by 2 or 3 months. They were chubbier by then, and the milk supply was good. And I just kept repeating this rotation throughout the day as long as I was awake (doing the last feeding around 11pm-12am), and they would start sleeping at least five hours at a stretch at night. Two of my babies were sleeping through the night by six weeks (seven hours, 11-6am or 12-7am). Don’t throw stones at me—the others took five to seven months to reach that point =)

Once the baby starts sleeping through the night a little bit though (five-seven hours), I would add an extra feeding in the morning and cluster feed in the evenings. I did this because a growing baby knows how many calories they need, and if they don’t get those calories during the day, they will usually wake up at night as much as necessary to get them. But you never want to move into having more wake up times at night—you always want to have fewer. A newborn baby might wake up seven times between 12 and 5am. But as you institute the schedule, they will quickly settle to about two times. And once they get to just one time, you want to keep that schedule strong until that one feeding goes away. It might not go away until they reach a certain weight or get on some solid food. It might not go away if they are growing like a weed or your milk supply is low. But once it goes, it is important to make sure you are feeding enough during the day to keep it gone, which for me meant a first nursing at 6 or 7am, and then again at 7:30am or 8:30am. And it meant feeding at 6, 8, and 10pm intervals in the evening (or something close to that). Don’t deify the schedule, but make it work for you.

Once your baby is sleeping through the night about six to seven hours, and getting on some solid food, they should be able to take longer naps too. It all works together. The goal is to coax your baby into moving from 45min naps to 90-min naps. (See my posts on Sleeping). Then when your baby can stay up for awhile after their feedings, and are probably on solid food, they can move to taking closer to a 2hr nap. They take fewer of them, though, and the schedule starts flexing to roughly four hours. My 4-8 month babies were on a schedule that looked something like this: nurse 10-15mins, awake 1.5-2.5 hrs, nap 90-135mins. They were still eating twice in the mornings, though, and twice before bedtime. And they were getting solid food about four times a day, a cracker or bit of fruit before their nap, and taking three naps a day. So there is flexibility in the older baby days, at least once they get on food. You are probably less uptight by then, more established in your and your baby’s needs, and not concerned about the baby’s weight. If not, though, go back to the younger baby schedule, and do that until you are getting results. Don’t move to the older baby (flexible) rotations until you see some signs:

  • sleeping through the night (five to seven hours at once, or seven to nine hours with just one wake-up)
  • good naps, at least 90mins.
  • ability to eat at least some solid food (cereal, pears, etc)
  • good weight gain, diaper output
  • ability to stay awake and play after feedings

Your goal is to get the older baby to fit in with your family, with a schedule closer to this: wake up after 6am, eat/wake/sleep on approximately four hour rotations until bedtime, bedtime before 11pm. This might look like about three naps a day, five to six feedings (bottles or nursing), and about three solid meals plus snacks as necessary. My older babies reached something like this, by seven or eight months:

Nursing: 7am/8:30am, 11am, 3pm, 7pm, 10pm

Naps: 9-11, 1-3, 6-7, bedtime between 10 and 11pm

Solid food at 11, 3, 7; small snacks before naps/bedtime

I pretty much continued a schedule like this until they were weaned around a year old, at a good weight, and sleeping well through the night (also past the critical teething, standing, etc. landmarks, which can interfere with sleep). But they dropped the third catnap between 6 -7pm and went to bed a little earlier (8 or 9pm). Somewhere between 11 and 13 months old, all my babies were fitting in with the rest of the family’s eating and sleeping schedule with the exception of staying up until 8 or 9pm. And sometime between 13 and 16months old, they dropped to one nap per day, about 2 or 2.5hrs, and went to bed with any older children, at 7:30pm.

So I hope this is helpful to you in some way. Obviously you can see that the earlier days of schedule-making are more rigid and artful than the older days. At least, they are if you start early enough! The main thing is to not watch the clock as much as you watch the rotation… you don’t have to feed at 12, 3, 6, 9, etc. every day… you just have to feed about every three hours. If the baby wakes up later one day, start then. Goes to bed earlier one night, end then. Sleeps a little less during a nap, start then. But keep in mind the end goal you want, and work towards that. Put some effort into it, and you will train your baby’s cues. You will know when their fussing means they’re tired. You will know when they’ve been awake long enough and needs their nap. You will know when they’ve been sleeping too long and need to eat. No matter what age you start, the training will work. But you will see results more quickly, the earlier you start. And flex your schedule to meet your baby’s unique needs, and those of your family. Flex it as the results come in that you want, and go back to more structure when results come in that you don’t want.

Ok, so I started out wanting to be clear. I’m not sure if I was. Please comment if you want, or ask questions.

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8 thoughts on “How to establish a baby schedule

  1. My baby is 3mths and the past couple of days he has been sleeping more and eating less often, however when he feeds he feeds for a long period of time. He goes to bed b/w 11-12 and wakes b/w & 7:30- 8:30. I was thinking that he might just be growing so thats why he is sleeping more. Before he ate pretty much every 2-2.5 hrs now its like 3-3.5 hours.

  2. Help! My baby boy is 4 months old, and he is super demanding. Ok, I know that sentence seems redundant, but I swear it’s not. He keeps me on my toes beyond belief. I really need help about setting a schedule for him ’cause I’m going nuts. I don’t know if I’m doing things right. I’ve been trying to space out his feedings to four hours but sometimes that just doesn’t work. He eats 5 oz at the most (yes he is at normal weight and height) and doesn’t always sleep or feed the same number of times in a day. He still wakes up at night, I was doing well, with waking up twice, but now he’s gone back to 3 or 4 times a night. I feel lost, really, and I’m so tired. Hubby works 2 jobs, and family and friends are in another city. I’m really doing this alone. Please help!

  3. Hi there! I really do enjoy your posts on baby routines, schedules, sleeping, eating, etc. I do have a question I’ve been wondering about for months and don’t know why I didn’t ask earlier. My baby is 8 months old now (and still not sleeping well through the night, but that’s another conversation), but I was wondering about the littler baby schedule and keeping the feedings at about 2.5 to 3 hours when they’re only taking 45 minute naps. At around 5-6 months, my son, started taking longer naps on his own (a little before he started solids, but I’m sure the solids helped). However, there was a season when his awake time was only 45 minutes and his naps were only 45 minutes, so when I fed him on routine he was eating every 1.5 hours (which he didn’t need and I think was part of a regression in his sleeping later… sigh.). But I was trying to stick to the eat play sleep routine (as opposed to watching the clock).

    In that kind of situation, what would you suggest doing? Tracy Hogg suggests doing pick up put down until they get used to sleeping for longer periods of time. I did that a little bit, but didn’t get results and honestly didn’t enjoy the process. I know friends who would just skip the routine and just keep it to feeding every 3 hours or so. In retrospect, I think that’s what I would do differently if I had it to do again. Do you have any thoughts about this? Would love to hear.

    Thanks.

  4. I found this website by chance, but I am very happy I did. You have a very practical approach and I find it very refreshing. I have been doing the same with my 3 month old and it has been challenging some days and rewarding others. My son has to wear braces for his clubfeet and does not fit it in that perfect schedule box. just wanted to say thank you

  5. Do you have time to help me through this? I have 3 children (31 months, 19 months and 6 weeks). Did not get my older 2 on schedules till they were older infants. I’m trying to start earlier with the baby. I’ve been reading the Babywise book and it seems to say that we really need to stick to a clock schedule (within a half hour) or the baby won’t stabilize their feeding. How do I know whether to put her on a 2 1/2 hour or 3 hour feeding schedule? Most of the time we are closer to the 2 1/2 hours during the day. She nurses well but I am only nursing her on one breast at each feed because she would throw up so much more and seemed to have more discomfort if she fed at both and she would wake up after being put down for a nap because she had thrown up. She usually seems to be awake happy for 1 to 1 1/2 hours (including feeding time) but she does not nap longer than 30 minutes during the day. (The only way that happens is if I put her on her tummy to sleep which I am weary to do at her young age) Am I keeping her awake too long? How do I get her to sleep longer? The problem I am having with the feeding schedule is that when she wakes up, it is usually only 1 1/2 to 2 hours after her last feed due to her short naps. She generally sleeps well at night going from about 8:30-9 pm till about 8 am with 2 feeds at around 2 am and 5 am.
    Also how did you put your newborns/really young infants down for a nap? I swaddle and rock her to sleep.
    Do you have any suggestions as to what to do?

    Thanks

  6. I, too, am struggling with the “eat, play, sleep” routine as my 3 month old wakes up from his nap in about 45-60 minutes, which would be less than the 3 hour time to eat. So we see more “eat, play, sleep” and then “play, eat, sleep”. Suggestions? I would really like to get more of a schedule sorted out for him, as I go back to work Full Time come January.
    Thanks!

  7. HELP!
    I have a six week old baby that I need help putting on a schedule, and help with teacching her how to fall asleep on her own.
    I have no clue what i am doing and DESPERATELY need your help.
    I came across this website by luck!
    THANKS

  8. HI!
    I’m having the same problem with my 9 week old as “Mommy In Asia”. I’ve been trying to follow the eat, wake, sleep schedule with him and his naps only range from 30-45 minutes. He nurses well for about 20 minutes without falling asleep, then he plays well for about 30-45 minutes, but when it comes to napping he just wakes up and I don’t know how to keep him sleeping. What do I do between the time he wakes up and the time he’s supposed to be eating again.. this could be an hour and then the cycle becomes more of a wake, eat, sleep and I don’t know how to get back. Should I try to keep him awake for longer periods? Maybe 60-90 minutes?

    Also, he’s sleeping well at night.. that’s not a problem. He sleeps from about 10/1030pm-7/730am being nursed once around 3/4am.

    Any suggestions would be so appreciated!
    Thanks!
    Danielle

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