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:
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.