With all talk about sleep these days, it seems like there are more topics than we have time to cover. But one of the things that I feel needs to be covered is this distinction between a routine and a schedule for a baby. Oftentimes parents confuse the two and aren’t quite sure what is best for babe, despite there being a rather striking difference between them. So let’s review them both to see which is more biologically normal for your child…
What is a routine and specifically how does it pertain to children?
Routine (n): A customary or regular course of procedure. For example, if every time you go to the gym you start with stretching, then a warm-up, then some cardio, then weights, then a cool-down, this would be your “workout routine”. It is a set or regular group of activities and you consistently perform them in the order stated.
When it comes to babies, the same can be said. Routines are simply the behaviours we enact in the same order each time we assume an activity. For many families, they will have full daytime routines and bedtime (or napping) routines. So if your regular course of action is that you wake up, get dressed, get the kids dressed, get breakfast, go to the park, go to the library, have lunch, nap, free play time, get dinner, and then get ready for bed, you’ve got your daytime routine. Your bedtime routine might look like this: bath, get dressed, story time, nursing, lights out.
Despite this being relatively simple, though, many parents make two “mistakes” when it comes to routines. The first is that they don’t create the routine with the child or children in mind. This means that they often meet resistance with the elements that are in conflict for the child. For example, a child for whom reading stories wakes them up is probably not a candidate to have a story right before bed. Despite it working for many families, it’s not something you would want to add to your particular routine. I’ve heard many parents complain about how their bedtime routines do not lead to sleep. That they are regularly up for hours after the routine has finished. One of the possible reasons for this is that the bedtime routine is not meeting the needs of the child (or the wants of the parent, for that matter). This is precisely why I can’t stand books that give you set routines. There is not a single routine that will work for every single child on this planet. In fact, I don’t think there’s a child for whom the same routine will work for the entirety of their childhood. Children are constantly changing and growing and with that comes new needs, new reactions to things, and thus, new routines. Even books that offer you different routines for different ages are still not basing the routine on your child.
But if a routine can be found that truly captures the needs of your child around sleep, it is as effective as sleep training in the short-term and more effective long-term (considering sleep training is not very effective long-term at all, and by long-term, we’re talking a few months). This is why many people who are opposed to sleep training do not just think parents need do nothing, but rather point out that there are very gentle ways to help a child fall asleep without tears, tantrums, or heartache (for child or parent).
The second mistake that parents often make is that they mistake routines for schedules. Thus, this brings me to…
What we do we have for our definition of a schedule?
Schedule (n): A plan for performing work or achieving an objective, specifying the order and allotted time for each part. Let’s go back to our initial gym example. You have your gym routine – what you do when you go to workout – but your gym schedule would be the exact times you expect to perform your routine and how long each part will take. For some, they may wake and ensure they hit the gym by 7am, do a 5-minute warm up, 20 minutes of cardio, 10 minutes of weights, and then a 5 minute cool-down. So your gym schedule focuses not only on what you will do, but when you expect these gym events to happen.
When we think of infant sleep, often parents believe that they need schedules. That they must have their infant to sleep by a certain time and it must be the same each night. I remember watching a lecture by Dr. Wendy Hall at UBC who made an off-hand comment that no good parent would ever put their infant to bed after 8pm. As a mother of a night owl, I can say that I both laughed out loud and wanted to smack some sense into her when I heard this. This type of comment instills in parents that they should not be listening to their babies, but rather some arbitrary time that others have set.
But here’s the dirty little secret – babies will sleep at all times. Especially young babies. Even older infants and toddlers can be night owls and it doesn’t make you a bad parent.
Outside of just not fitting all babies, though, a schedule can pose problems on its own. For one, it assumes that babies experience the days as the same, that they have the same amount of energy spent by a certain time of time and are always ready for sleep at the same time. If you happen to have a baby for whom this is the case, you don’t need a schedule, your baby will fall asleep on cue. And if you don’t, you are far more likely to have a stress-free bedtime if you follow your baby’s cues as to when he or she starts to get tired and then initiate the bedtime routine (which may take longer or shorter amounts of time on a given night when you don’t’ have it down to the minute à la scheduling). Think of how successful you are in going to bed when you’re not tired and you should see that the same will go for an infant. This can lead to tears (baby and mom), frustration, anxiety, and all sorts of unpleasantness that no one wants.
(Of note, this does not mean you wait for your child to tell you when he or she is ready for bed, but that you can see the cues that your particular child has suggesting it would be a good time to get that routine going. Again, you have to learn these cues from your child as they will be different for different kids.)
Some might argue that with work and the need to get up early, babies need to be asleep by a certain time. I would counter that if you are getting them up early (if you have to), they will naturally be tired earlier and you will naturally see their cues to being tired. Some days, however, they may stay up an extra hour, and some days they may show signs of being tired an hour earlier. But aren’t we all like that?
A second issue with schedules is that they blatantly ignore the developmental milestones that affect infant sleep. Normal infant sleep (with its usual night wakings, which are highly variable between children) is affected by normal infant things like teething and growth spurts and cognitive leaps. These milestones serve to disrupt sleep, typically increasing fussiness and awake periods. Being tied to a schedule ignores the additional needs that a child has during these times. In fact, there is research suggesting that even those infants who sleep well early show an increase in night wakings between the six and 12 month stage. And even prior to six months, many infants begin teething and go through several growth spurts meaning their sleep will be disrupted and they will need your attention, love, care, and compassion to get through these harder times. Attempting to force a child into a schedule can mean you have to ignore what they need, and that is not responsive parenting.
I don’t think there’s much doubt that routines are far superior to schedules. Infants and young children need not be on a schedule and in fact, trying to force one can be detrimental to both them and your relationship with them. Even when people change the schedules with the age of the baby (as recommended in many parenting books), one is still trying to force behaviour onto the child instead of following the child’s cues and allowing a natural routine to develop. This can also serve to alleviate parental stress. Instead of staring at the clock and feeling your anxiety rise because it’s now 3 minutes past “bedtime”, parents can focus on the time with their children, enjoying the routines that work and learning more about your child by following his or her cues. Potentially most importantly for families struggling with sleep issues, schedules have not been found to help the family, but routines have – in fact, more so than sleep training. Remember – your child does not is not in the Army and does not need strict regimens, especially as he or she learns to feel safe and secure when sleeping. Dump the schedule and get a good routine going and let the rest take care of itself.
[Final note: Some kids have special needs and need to have a lot of structure. Having not raised a special needs child myself, I cannot comment on the complexity that is added to parenting. This piece refers solely to typically-developing children (as they are referred to in research).]
 Mindell JA, Telofski LS, Weigand B, Kurtz ES. A nightly bedtime routine: impact on sleep in young children and maternal mood. Sleep 2009; 32: 599-606.
 Anders TF, Keener MA. Developmental course of nighttime sleep-wake patterns in full-term and premature infants during the first year of life. Sleep 1985; 8: 173-192.
 Scher A. A longitudinal study of night waking in the first year. Child: Care, Health and Development 1991; 17: 295-302.