Thursday, May 24, 2012

On Routines

It is vitally important, in child-rearing, to make a distinction between establishing a routine and enforcing a schedule. While on the surface, the two concepts seem similar and can be described in similar language, the difference in the effect each will have upon your baby's (and your) well-being is significant.

We live our lives in schedules. School schedules, work schedules, appointments, meals, everything goes by time in this world, at least for adults. It's time to wake up. It's time to eat lunch. It's time to pick up the kids from school . It's time for your doctor's appointment. It's time to take the car in for service. Time, time, time. It's natural to us to schedule things - let me look at my calendar, let's check the bus schedule - to keep our lives in sync with each other.

And yet.

And yet, it's not natural at all to babies. Babies and toddlers have no sense of time. They don't know if it's 6:30 or 7:30. They don't care if it's 10:30 or 12:00. They just don't understand the concept of an hour or a minute. It doesn't matter to them. They live their lives around their own perceptions. I'm hungry. I'm tired. I'm not tired. I'm no longer tired. I'm no longer hungry. I want to sleep. I don't want to sleep. I want Mommy to hold me. I want Daddy to hug me.

As adults, with a clear idea of the passage of time, we sometimes get frustrated with how often our babies want to eat, or how short a nap they took, or how few hours there are between night wakings. We just wish they would follow our schedules. Some baby books recommend establishing and enforcing a schedule for your baby. Feed every three hours. Put down for a nap at these times. Do not take out of crib until x amount of time has passed. Go to bed for the night at this time. Do not wake up until that time. If your baby is on a schedule, you'll be able to plan your day, and your baby will know what's expected of him.

Except, this doesn't work terribly well. Not every baby needs to eat the same amount or in the same intervals. Not every baby needs the same amount of sleep, or to sleep at the same times. Babies have their own daily rhythms, and if we try to force them into a schedule that is at odds with their internal rhythms, we can literally cause them harm. A baby who is forced into a feeding schedule may actually fail to thrive (this is a medical term: Failure to Thrive, which indicates that the baby is not growing and gaining weight as expected). In addition, a nursing mother may find her supply dwindling if she denies her baby a necessary feeding, or tries to force her baby and her breasts to follow the clock.

Instead of a schedule, whereby your baby's day is determined by the clock, what I've found to be helpful is to understand and establish routines for your baby or toddler. Small children thrive on routines in exactly the way they don't when in an enforced schedule. A routine allows a child to know what's going on now and what's happening next, so he won't be surprised. But, the difference between a routine and a schedule, to me, is that you build the routine based on the child's rhythms and needs.

Having a routine helps you, as the parent, as well. Because of your routine, you can anticipate, to a degree, when your baby will be hungry, tired, and content, and can plan your day accordingly. That's not to say that once you unlock the secret of your baby's routine, you'll have it down pat and will be able to rely upon the routine, but it helps to order your day, and the baby's day, and will help you stay sane.

There are different kinds of routines. There's your overall daily routine, which involves feedings and naps. There's how you structure a particular part of the day, like mornings and bedtimes. Your overall daily routine may dictate when bedtime is, but you can then build a bedtime routine that works well for you and your child so that he will understand that it's time to go to sleep and fall asleep more easily and peacefully.

As you add more children to the mix, the routine becomes a little more complicated, but if each child has a sense of what's going on, everyone will be happier.

And, as the rule is with babies, just when you've got him figured out, he'll change it up on you again.

For the sake of example, let me tell you about my daily routine!

We wake up in the morning, usually around 6:30 or 7:00. Typically, one or both of the older boys will wake first and come thumping down the hall and climb into bed with us. Occasionally, they sleep in a bit, and it's the baby, or even (gasp!) the alarm clock that wakes us. Usually, though, it's SB's quiet "Can you help me come up on the bed?" or NJ's heavy clambering that rouses us. NJ and SB go downstairs to watch TV (G-d bless the day they figured out how to work Netflix for themselves!) while we doze a bit, I nurse the baby or watch him sleep or let him play on the bed, and then my husband gets up and takes his shower. When he's done, I put the baby on the floor (if he's awake) to play while I take my shower and get dressed. My husband goes downstairs to make breakfast. That's basically the morning routine - for now. Once school is out, it will change, and then when school starts up again, it will change again, but for now, this has worked for us all school year.

Once my husband goes to work, I hang around with the kids until it's about two hours since the baby woke up. This is usually between 8:45 and 9:30 (he usually wakes in the morning between 6:45 and 7:30, that is to say). About that time, he gets hungry and sleepy, and I take him up to bed and he nurses easily to sleep. While he sleeps, I try to get some of my transcription work done. I never know if he'll sleep for 45 minutes or two hours, but he sleeps well for however long he sleeps. The boys play, hopefully quietly and nicely, while I work. Then around 10:00, I remember that they still are in their pajamas, and I coax them upstairs to get dressed. Sometimes the baby is awake by this time, other times he isn't. He hangs around and plays if he's up. The boys get dressed, and then it's time for lunch. (NJ is in P.M. kindergarten, so we eat lunch around 10:30 so we can walk him to school by 11:15-ish.) I make and serve lunch, we eat, then NJ gets ready for school and we all put shoes on, load up the double stroller (or the car, depending on how we're getting there that day), and it's off to school.

While NJ is at school, I may run errands, try to work, get SB together with a friend, if possible, or just hang out. GI is typically ready for his second nap about three hours after waking from his first. Depending on the length of his first nap, the time for the second nap can vary widely. Today, for example, GI took a very long morning nap, almost two hours, and thus didn't wake until around 11:00 - in fact, I had to wake him to take NJ to school. That was unfortunate. I like to let him sleep as much as he needs to. This meant he was ready for his second nap at 2:00. Sometimes, his second nap is at 12:30. Other times it's at 1:00. The length of this nap can also vary widely, from 45 minutes to (the longest ever) 2-1/2 hours. I try to plan my errands around when I think he'll be ready for his nap, so we can be home for it. I need to do most of my typing work while he sleeps, so I don't like him to nap while we're out and about, if I can help it. If not, then he sleeps when he sleeps.

Except. We have to leave to pick up NJ from school between 2:30 and 2:40. If it looks like GI's nap is going to run up against this time, I'll generally try to keep him awake until we get home from picking up NJ. This is hard and usually backfires, but I'd rather try to have him take a nap at 3:00 than wake him from a 15-minute nap at 2:30. This happened today, as mentioned. I had to keep him distracted. He did go to sleep easily at 3:00, but he only slept for 45 minutes. I don't know if that was because of his very long morning nap or because of the delay in getting him to sleep for his second nap. I have found that if I miss the sleep window, it's harder for him to fall asleep and he doesn't sleep as long or as well. After three kids, I firmly believe this is a baby-rearing truth.

Anyway, we get NJ from school, either by foot or by car, and then have a fairly fluid afternoon. Some days, I have a neighborhood girl who comes over and plays with the kids so I can work. Other days, not. Some days, we run errands after school, or have a playdate in the park, or something like that. Other days, we just hang around at home. Today was one of those hang-around-at-home days. GI took his nap, NJ and SB played, and I worked some more.

Around 5:00, if possible, I try to get ready to make dinner, and I try to serve dinner by 6:00, although that time my vary by as much as 30 to 45 minutes in either direction, depending on when I get started and how long it takes to make whatever I decide to make. Today I served almost exactly at 6:00, even though I didn't get started until after 5:30. Happened to be an easy dinner that didn't take long.

I usually let NJ and SB watch TV while I make dinner, which they did today while also entertaining GI for me. Occasionally, GI will nap during dinner or dinner prep, which is awesome. Usually, he needs to sleep about four hours after waking up from his second nap, although this is less predictable. Also, sometimes he takes a third nap, and sometimes he goes down for the night, and I often don't know which it's going to be. I'm hoping that within the next few weeks, he'll settle on a more predictable bedtime, but we'll see. It's certainly gotten easier than it was when he was a newborn and not going down for the night until 1:00 a.m.!

Anyway, that just leaves the bedtime routine! This routine has been in place, mostly unchanged in spirit, since NJ was about 10 months old. I now make them pick up their toys before bed, which sometimes goes peacefully and sometimes ends in all three (or four!) of us in tears. Today was easy, and it wasn't very messy, besides, which was also nice. We then go upstairs, where NJ chooses whether to take a shower by himself or a bath with SB. They can mostly get themselves ready for their shower/bath, except SB needs help taking off his shirt. Here's where GI's unpredictable bedtime can be irritating. Sometimes I can put him down for the night while NJ and SB bathe. When that happens, he misses out on the bedtime routine, but it makes the rest of the routine easier for me and the two older ones, because I'm not trying to baby-wrangle at the same time as everything else. GI just started crawling and pulling up (this week), so things have gotten even more interesting around here!

Anyway, they get out of their shower/bath/whatever, brush teeth, and I help SB into his pajamas (NJ does that by himself). SB picks a book for me to read, and then I read whatever chapter book NJ and I are currently working on (right now, it's Stuart Little), and I read some of that. Then we do the bedtime Shema together, and then they each pick another song for me to sing to them. Tonight it was "You Are My Sunshine" (variously referred to as "Don't Take My Sunshine Away," "There Is My Sunshine," et al.) and "Sweet Baby James," which I have been singing on and off to NJ since he was a baby. Aw. Sometimes we have a rousing chorus of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," while other times it's a sober "Danny Boy". Then it's lights out, good night, sleep tight. If GI is still awake, I'll usually take him and hope to nurse him to sleep. Sometimes he goes down. Other times, he's just woken from what turned out to be a third nap and won't go back to sleep for at least two hours.

Then it's evening, my favorite time of day. It's quiet and peaceful, and I usually can get some more work done, write my blog, or relax in front of the TV. And take breaks to run upstairs to nurse GI back to sleep, of course.

Eventually, I get ready to go to bed, and it's off to interrupted sleep for me until the next morning, when it all starts again!

And that's what I mean by a routine. Our morning and bedtime routines are so set that the kids know exactly what to do and when and in what order. There's rarely any fighting about going to sleep or about what they need to be doing, since it's established and has been since NJ was a toddler. The rest of the day is more fluid, depending so much on what everybody has to do, but knowing the baby's rhythms for sleeping and eating makes it much easier for me to plan my day.

And you all just watch, because it's all going to change again pretty soon! It always does. But it's nice to have that bedtime routine to fall back on, invariably, almost every night, for years now. It settles the day and helps transition into nighttime peacefully.

Speaking of quiet evenings in which I work and blog, now that I've blogged, I really must return to my work and then get myself off to bed!

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