Routines (and How to Hack Them)

Routines and schedules: these are words that can, as a parent, either fill you with joy or absolute horror! However you feel about routines, this episode will give you guidance and tips (that definitely won’t fill you with horror!). We will also give you a crib sheet on what many of the other baby sleep books miss out – how to hack a routine.

We’ll answer our listener Laura's question about routines and putting her baby to sleep in her cot awake.

Five Things About Routines

1 – What is a routine

2 – What is not a routine

3 – What do you need to fit in a day

4 – How to keep a routine

5 – How to hack a routine

[Ep.6 Routine Transcript]

Cat: [00:00:00]Hello, you lovely, barf-covered, probably bedraggled, dressed from the floredrobe, undoubtedly tired people. This is a baby sleep podcast for parents by parents, because we know how you feel... knackered. And you would do just about anything except that to get your baby to sleep. I'm Cat Cubie parenting journalist, broadcaster and put-er on of socks to a two and a four year old. And this is Sarah Carpenter, mum of three, and Norland-trained baby sleep expert and consultant who has helped thousands of parents get sleep and a wee bit of sanity back. Together we are The Sleep Mums...

Cat and Sarah: [00:00:37]Ooh no, my tummy is making really funny noises! Sarah: I can't hear it! Cat: I had lentil moussaka for dinner, so, you know, recording might be interesting! Sarah: Brilliant.

Cat: [00:00:49]Sarah and I have written a book together. The Sleep Mums, Read It and Sleep. And now with this podcast, we hope to help even more parents get a good night's sleep. This week's podcast is about routine, which is a word that can either put the fear of "god knows what is in that nappy?" In you or fill you with the joys of managing to eat your dinner with two hands and cutlery! Never happens when you've got a newborn, but whichever side of the routine divide you fall on, we are here to tell you that it's all OK. And part of it is really just semantics.

Cat: [00:01:23]So that's the first of our five things, which seems like a pretty good place to start, what is routine? We're calling it a routine but you can call it a schedule, a guide, what you do on the daily... I mean, very simply, it's a framework which helps to take some of the guesswork out of parenting, of which there is a lot I mean, people often joke that babies don't come with a manual, but I reckon a good routine is a kind of a close option. So, Sarah, what is a routine?

Sarah: [00:01:54]Well, first of all, a routine doesn't need to be scary and it doesn't need to make you feel like you're in prison. It's basically a predictable feeding, eating and sleeping pattern for you and your baby. You know, you need to be able to fit in to your day what you need as much as you then need to be able to meet your baby's needs. So it's just a framework to follow and it needs to work for you and your family. It can't be a routine that works for a baby and doesn't work for anybody else because then you're going to hate it and not get anywhere with that.

Cat: [00:02:32]I think that's often the issue with some other baby sleep experts and books and things is that they're really, really stringent about what the routine should look like. But as you say, the most important thing is how that fits into the family life that you have. And that obviously changes and it changes with subsequent children if you end up having more than one.

Sarah: [00:02:57]Definitely has to be adaptable to fit things in and you know it is important, but it's it's only important if it works, if it's working for everybody.

Cat: [00:03:11]But I think also it's important probably to say that a routine is one that's directed by you, not not by your baby. You're not following... well, it's kind of a co-production, but you're not sitting down and having a meeting about it!

Sarah: [00:03:27]You're definitely in charge of saying that routine but your focus is meeting your baby's needs.

Cat: [00:03:33]A routine is also useful because it can help you to see when something's not working; if your baby's eating's out of whack or they're having less or, you know, a change in a routine can also be quite a good indicator, either that something's up or I guess just that baby's growing and developing.

Sarah: [00:03:53]Yes you always know when to move on to the next stage of routine because the routine that they're currently following will start to feel like it's not working. So, you know, as for the everything about babies and children, it is always changing. You may have had six really smooth weeks and think, wow, this is amazing we've totally cracked this. And then it will go out the window again. It doesn't mean that you've done anything wrong. It doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with baby it just means that they are ready for the next routine.

Cat: [00:04:25]Standard! These little children keeping us on our toes. Yes. So there are obviously lots of things that you fit into a routine. But as you say, they change quite a lot during that that first year.

Sarah: [00:04:36]I think it scares people quite a lot. Fast moving those first six months can be. And, you know, you have that baby. You get through those first scary few weeks, then you settle into a little bit of a pattern and you think that's OK. And then, boom, it's time to squeeze a bit of weaning in there or you're dropping a couple of naps. And, you know, the first six months are so many big changes, then you do get a little bit more settled for a few months and then you have another big change again.

Cat: [00:05:06]I think those big changes also feel really daunting as you lead up to them. Maybe it's a bit like those big birthdays. You're like, oh my God, everything's going to change and it seems terrifying. And then it happens. And usually it's not quite as dramatic as you think it's going to be.

Cat: [00:05:24]It's important we establish what a routine is, but I also want to talk about what a routine is not, and I guess this is mostly for the people who think a routine sounds terrifying. So that's our second thing. What is not a routine?

Sarah: [00:05:39]So routine as not being trapped in your house all day, a routine as not feeling like you have to do exactly the same thing at the same times every day. And it's not about being alone. I think, for a lot of people that's the scariest thing, is that we think if they've got a routine in place then they're the only people that can do it. So, you know, one parent might feel very much like the responsibility is all on them because it's their routine and that's how they're doing things. And it doesn't need to be like that. As with everything, share the load where you can.

Cat: [00:06:15]I think you're absolutely right. The word routine can give people the heebie jeebies because it feels like it's something's going to be really restrictive and you possibly already feel a wee bit restricted by this new life in yours. That has changed things a lot. But also, as you say, you know, if you have a partner, you can have different ideas from a partner about a routine and how strict that routine may or may not be. And that can be difficult to manage. So, as always, we you should talk about it. And if you're the one that kind of digs a routine, then don't feel like you are the only one that has to manage it. And also, as you say, that routine does not have to be this really prescriptive clock-based thing where you've got your eye on the clock all the time and, you know, an Army sergeant isn't going to make you do press ups if baby doesn't do something ateven forty seven a.m. in the morning and your whole day will be a write off. So, you know, a routine does not mean, as you say, that you can't have a life.

Sarah: [00:07:19]And it also doesn't mean that you can't just be spur of the moment. You know, if you're following a routine and you get to eleven o'clock in the morning and you're having a crap day, doesn't mean that you can't leave the house to go and get a coffee or go for a walk or just clear your head. You know, it really is, as you as much as a baby can have a bad day, you can also have a crap day too.

Cat: [00:07:42]So, yeah, we talk a lot about fulfilling baby's needs and we're going to talk about that even more, I guess, during this episode in terms of routine. But also you have to think about your needs as a parent as well. It's natural that you'll put your babies first as you should. But also, you know, as you say, if you need to get out the house and get coffee and you can do so with baby and you got to do these things because you'll go insane if you don't.

Sarah: [00:08:12] Definitely, you really will.

Cat: [00:08:17]Ok, so now we know what a routine is and what it is not, we know that simply a routine is trying to ensure that your baby gets enough sleep and feeds into a day to make life easier for you and to make sure that they are fulfilled. So happily that brings us to the next important piece of routine pie. What to fit into a routine each day. In the beginning, we look at a 24 hour period because newborns seem to think that life's some kind of open all hours party. But as they grow, thankfully, their needs can mostly be fulfilled within 12 hours. And for a lot of people, those 12 hours tend to fall between six a.m. and nine p.m.. So, Sarah, what do you need to fit in to a day for a routine?

Sarah: [00:09:05]So the really important things that you need to fit in are eating, sleeping and activity. There's a lot of flexibility within those three things. You know, some babies are going to be naturally more snacky and they will need to feed more regularly and other babies will nap slightly less and need a little bit more active time. But you need the backbone for your routine, and it really is just working out your timings between feeds, making sure that baby's been active enough and then making sure the baby's ready for naptime and getting those things in. And then the first thing that you're going to do to get your routine, you're going to have to start your day and an end to your day. And then everything else that you need within that routine will fit in but you have to decide on your start time when you're in time and then stick with that.

Cat: [00:10:00]So maybe we could start at the beginning. We've said for two weeks it's a free for all. Just enjoy your baby. Then as you begin to kind of get used to having your lovely wee one with you, what what could a routine look like? And then how does it change as we go through the first year?

Sarah: [00:10:18]So you'd be looking to start your day at about seven, seven thirty, and that should regardless of what's happened overnight. So even if you've been up to baby at five o'clock in the morning, once you're ready to start your routine, you would then be saying, OK, we've had a feed at five, but we're still going to get up at half-past seven again to do another feed. And you're then wanting to squeeze in feeds, you know in those first six weeks, you're looking to squeeze in feeds every two and a half to three hours max and from the point of waking for the first feed and baby would still be napping inbetween each feed. So there's not going to be a lot of active time. Your active time at this stage as changing baby's nappy, interacting a little bit when they are getting their clothes changed. They might be happy to sit in a chair or lie on a playpat for a little while and you've got to make sure that at some point in your day you get your five or ten minutes of tummy time and that's quite good to do around about bathtime. So get ready for bath, pop baby on a nice cosy towel, do tummy time into bath and then that's you into your bedtime routine.

Cat: [00:11:34]So that's how it starts out. But what are the biggest milestones for the changes in routine over the first year?

Sarah: [00:11:40]So the very first thing that you'll see change is the feeds will become more spaced apart. So, you know, they'll go from the sort of every two to two and a half hours, they will become very fixed at the three hour mark, so you will be feeling a lot less as time goes on. The naps also become more defined. You'll have sort of, set hours. You'll know when your baby's showing the signs that they are ready for naps and that's when you'll do your three specific naps. Then you do go through a little bit of a funny phase where you're introducing solids and that makes it feel like everything's going a little bit backwards because you've had quite a nice settled time where you've got your feeds, you've got your naps, you've got your start to the day, you've got the end and then boom, we've got to manage to get three meals and two snacks in there as well. So you go back to that feeling of the early days when you've actually got no time in between.

Cat: [00:12:34]And there's often there's a crossover with the milk feeds as well. So it can feel like you're doing a milk feed and a solid feed. You know, it's everything, and it can feel pretty overwhelming for a first time parent, actually any parent!

Sarah: [00:12:50]Definitely.

Cat: [00:12:54]Becasue it's messy, it's confusing...

Sarah: [00:13:00]You go back to that feeling of just thinking that you've got no time to do anything, because you're really cramming a lot into your day. So that will last four to six weeks until things start to calm down again. And then as you then reduce the milk feeds because of the solids, it means that you then go back to those more defined spaces between milk and solids and naps. And then towards the end of the first year, you're again dropping more of the milk feeds, you're on clear nap times and one of your naps is going to be much, much shorter, which is also allowing you more time in your day. And then around sort of 12 to 14 month mark the naps drop right back to one nap a day. So all of a sudden, you've got way more active time with your little one.

Cat: [00:13:50]And again, as I say, like a lot of these big changes, they can feel overwhelming as you lead up to them. But then they happen and it can be a bit actually a bit of a relief to get.

Sarah: [00:14:00]It can be because, again, you're developing with baby and so what you realize is, you know, especially with the naps, you know, one of one of your naps might have become quite a battle and it's actually not enjoyable for anybody but then when you realize that that's a developmental thing and they need to drop that nap, you then have a lot more happy time with your baby again.

Cat: [00:14:21]Just as a kind of aside, how do you know when baby's going to drop that nap?

Sarah: [00:14:27]So there will be little signs the a settling for that nap will become a little bit more frustrating for both parties. You know, baby won't settle as easily. The longer nap of the day might become drastically shorter because they've had too much sleep in the first nap, bedtimes might become a little bit unsettling. So all the sort of smooth transitions that you've had, you might just start to see little niggles in them all and, actually, when you cut that nap out, the shorter nap, the one they're ready to drop. When you cut that out, everything just settles again.

Cat: [00:15:03]And most of the time that long nap or the big nap is around lunchtime?

Sarah: [00:15:10]For most people, they do prefer that, and especially if your child is going to be in a nursery, generally the nursery would have the longer nap after lunch. But it isn't set in stone, I have had three children and all of my three children decided to have a long nap in the morning. I was in a position where I could be led by them in that respect. So you can certainly engineer things to make it work for you.

Cat: [00:15:41]It's all well and good to talk about setting up a routine and what ideally you want to fit into it. But - and this question is one I absolutely asked you when mine were small - how the hell do you keep it? So that's the fourth thing. How do you keep a routine?... Sarah, I feel like you're going to drop a consistency right about... now! And I know how important it is but babies don't always get the memo. So how do you keep everything together?

Sarah: [00:16:09]You're absolutely right, Cat. Consistency is my favorite word and that really is key. But you can always have good days and you do have to relax about the bad days, which is really difficult at times. But as far as things that you go on and you know that your baby needs them every day, then you have to make sure that you are providing the best environment for that baby to get those things. So, you know, we're not saying to be tied at home. But if you are out and about over a nap time then make sure that you provide somewhere that baby can nap while you're out and about so little, you're not being consistent within your setting, you're still being consistent with what you can provide for baby. So, you know, you're not going to miss an entire nap in the first few weeks and months, you know, baby wouldn't actually cope if they didn't have the opportunity to nap at all. Sure, it might be a 15, 20 minute nap instead of a 40 minute nap, but they've had the opportunity to recharge the batteries and that should be important.

Cat: [00:17:14]It can be a bit of a snowball effect, if baby doesn't get the sleep that they need they can just get more and more overtired, then they struggle to feed and then they struggle to sleep because they're overtired.

Sarah: [00:17:26]Definitely. If you missed a couple of feeds or if you miss a nap, especially in those first four months, then they are going to need to make that up somewhere else. So you are going to end up doing an extra feed overnight or you might end up with a super overtired baby who just won't go to bed. So then it does have a real knock on effect. But you will have off days. You will have days where you do have an overtired baby. You will have situations where, you know, you've got stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway and you just can't pull over and do a quick side of the road feed. So consistency is key, but babies don't always - and life doesn't always - allow for that. One of the things I probably bored you with as well by saying on repeat was about three to five day rule. And again, that is really you if you want to change a habit, it will take three to five days to change it. In the same way that if you don't do something for three to five days, then you've lost that as well. So within your flexibility, try and bear that in mind. So if you are going to go out for dinner, then do it once, don't do it three nights in a row, because then you have lost hard work of the routine that you've set up. So just by keeping that in mind that there is a three to five day rule about making changes that will help you see how flexible you can be within a routine.

Cat: [00:18:53]And that three to five day rule is about being really consistent within those days. You know, if a nap is going out of whack and you want you'd like to encourage baby to go back to having a longer sleep in the day because you know that it makes your afternoon more fun, they're less grumpy and then it makes bedtime better. You do need to be consistent about that for that three to five days.

Sarah: [00:19:14]You do. And the thing is, when you know that you want to make a big change like that, you'll see very quickly how important it is to knuckle down for that period of time. And when you start to see the progress it becomes easier the next time that you maybe have to do it and make a change.

Cat: [00:19:30]I mean, parenting is obviously exhausting, really, really exhausting. And that's why we're here. And sometimes the path of least resistance just seems easier. So you think baby doesn't really seem to like napping at this time, so I won't bother, but actually it can make such an impact on your day and you have to kind of sometimes you have to work to get the outcome that you want and it requires patience and you don't always see immediate results. As we say, it could be three to five days. Sometimes some babies depends how stubborn they are, maybe even longer.

Sarah: [00:20:06]Yep, definitely, they're not going to do things at the same time.

Cat: [00:20:12]I mentioned right at the start. Some people get the heebie jeebies when you mention routine and many parents will say they've tried it and it just didn't work for them. However, we believe that's because a lot of sleep books and online advice forums and things tend to forget that one size of routine is not going to fit all. So that's our final thing, how to hack a routine. So, Sarah, firstly, why do parents feel like routines don't work? And secondly, how do you hack a routine?

Sarah: [00:20:38]The reason that most parents feel like routines aren't working is because they're not being consistent, that's the key thing again, you know. A routine doesn't come overnight. And like we said earlier, you know, you do need your start point and your end point and then things are going to fit and in the middle of it. But for a lot of people, when they read a book and they read, ok so baby should be having a nap 9.15, while I sit down and put my feet up, that isn't going to happen.

Cat: [00:21:08]Not our book!

Sarah: [00:21:12]Yeah, definitely not our book. But that's not going to happen as specifically as that, you can't put such specific timings on things. And so when it doesn't happen, day one, that's it, parents throw in the towel and say OK, well, it hasn't worked. I'm not going to do it again because that was a nightmare and I felt overwhelmed by it.

Cat: [00:21:29]And I think a lot of those standardized routines often don't take into account different people's working patterns, different children, you know, different circumstances.

Sarah: [00:21:41]Absolutely. And one of the first questions I ask my clients is what are the things in their days or weeks that they can't change? Because really, you know, if you're not working with what you're already doing, then the routine that you follow isn't going to work for anybody. So if I telling you that you've got to be sitting down for breakfast at 7:30 when you actually you need to be at work for 7:30, then it's not going to work.

Cat: [00:22:08]Yeah, totally. So, if those are your circumstances, how do you hack a routine?

Sarah: [00:22:14]You have to work out the start time and end time that works for you and your family. So that's the first thing you know. We can't tell you what time to get up in the morning. You have to look at your 24 hours, your commitments and find your own set time to start and finish. Once you've got that, then within those hours you've got a little bit of flexibility with the half an hour rule. So, you know, if your baby usually does a nap around about nine thirty but at nine o'clock you're looking at your baby thinking, well, they're showing all the sleep cues and signs. This baby looks really tired and this is what I would normally see in about half an hours time. That's fine, put them down early. It's not strict and set, so you can go half an hour or half an hour later and if you work for then that sort of half hour either side of things, you're always going to stay on track for your bedtime. So no matter what has happened since the start of your day, as long as you do not let it go over the half an hour either side, you will still finish your day at the same time that you've decided.

Cat: [00:23:17]I sort of feel like that's a bit of like a level up, but that's me speaking personally, because I was a bit of a routine queen. And so at the beginning, almost for my own sanity, I needed to be like, my baby is going down for sleep at this time and then hopefully they'll sleep until this time and then I'm going to have a feed at this time. And then it was only once I felt so super comfortable with that, I was able to be a bit more like, yeah, I'm cool. I'm a relaxed parent.

Sarah: [00:23:41]Did we not have a day where I came over to yours and we made you be more flexible within your routine?

Cat: [00:23:53]Yes, you made me do it! That's what we're saying; it's OK. It's OK if you love a routine and you want the security of it and it's OK if what works best for you is to be a wee bit more flexible within that. You know, that doesn't need to be one size fits all. It's just that you're trying to ensure that you fit in the needs of the baby within that twelve hour period of time. And then obviously overnight it's feeding on demand until, hopefully, that decreases to sleeping on demand.

Sarah: [00:24:33]I think as well, you know, with the sort of routine hacking, there are going to be things that you need to change for reasons like baby's got a doctor's appointment and it falls, you know, at eleven o'clock in the morning, which is normally when you would be feeding. You can totally change things by not necessarily changing the timings but by getting yourself organized a little bit earlier and driving to the doctor's appointment. It doesn't matter if you're there sitting outside feeding for twenty minutes before the appointment. So it's not necessarily changing things for the baby but actually changing things for you as well.

Cat: [00:25:09]And I think it's really important to feel comfortable in doing that and, hopefully, you know, that's definitely one of the things that Sarah and I aspire to is to give you the confidence to to be able to hack our routines and to not be a big scaredy cat like me!

Cat: [00:25:31] Each week, we'll put one of your questions to Sarah, and this week it's Laura that has a question about routines.

Laura: [00:25:38]Hi Cat and Sarah, my little girl is coming up for six months old. Is there a way of getting her into a routine whereby I could put her down and then for her to drift herself off to sleep? Or is it actually that OK at this wee stage in her life? Thank you.

Cat: [00:25:59]I think this just goes exactly what we've been talking about, this kind of mythical idea of putting a baby to bed that is awake. And I totally hear that in Laura's question, it's like you've heard this, you know, it should kind of be possible by it feels really, really hard to do.

Sarah: [00:26:19]So it is that key thing you have, your clear routine that includes everything that you need and then be consistent with the approach and make sure that whether it's you, dad, granny, auntie, uncle that's doing it, you're all doing the same thing. So no one's going to hold her for an extended period of time once she is in her sleeping bag. Once you've got the room set up, she goes into her cot awake and then she gets herself to sleep. So it's not necessarily a drift, but it will be her self-settling.

Cat: [00:26:48]So it's kind of getting that balance of how do you put a baby to bed that's awake without it being kind of traumatic for them or for the parents. And I know you're saying be consistent but I think sometimes it's... Part of it is probably having that belief that it will work, because there's always that period of time where you think this is not working. This is horrible.

Sarah: [00:27:11]Yeah, totally. So you have to be confident. And that's something that I say to people a lot. If you feel like you're going to put that baby to bed and you're going to feel anxious about their reaction, then you're already starting on the back foot that you need to be confident in what you're doing, which I get is super hard because all that you're going on is I'm telling you that you've got to be confident and that it is going to work and you don't always believe the person that's telling you that. But in this situation, the more confident you are, the more quickly this is going to work. And having the very tight bedtime routine baby is key. So, you know, you've got all your key things in there and once you carried those out and being confident and being consistent you will know yourself because you're following a schedule or a routine, you'll know that your baby's ready to go to bed, you'll know that they're tired and so you won't have that conflict that once she goes into a you will be thinking is she tired, is she for sleep? Actually you will be putting her in her cot and saying you are ready for sleep, you are going to sleep, and that's when you can walk away confidently.

Cat: [00:28:17]Thanks so much to Laura for getting in touch. We hope that helps. And if you have a question you want to ask us, we will try and fit it into one of our future podcasts. Just give us a shout online.

Cat: [00:28:31]The key to having a good routine is keeping it simple and keeping it the same, if you always have lunch at 12:00 o'clock, your tummy will almost without fail, start rumbling around 12 o'clock. Humans are creatures of habit and babies are, of course, just tiny little cute pukey humans! As ever, we hope this helps. Such a big part of what we do is letting you know that you're not alone in the 3am. club and we want other parents to feel the same. So if you could spread the word, that would be amazing. Tell your friends at the baby group, share our podcast on your socials or write us a lovely review. This is, of course, a community of kindness, one where we want all parents and caregivers to feel properly supported.

Cat: [00:29:15]As always, thanks for listening and sleep soon.

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