Eating and sleeping are perhaps two of the greatest debates among mamas. Can a bottle fed baby be as healthy as a breastfed baby, and does it really matter if your baby is on a sleeping schedule?
We all know what I think about the first one, and I am blessed to have friends that mostly agree that FED IS BEST.
So since we aren’t going to dig any deeper into that one, we will just get right to the second one.
Should babies be on a sleep schedule? Do they really need it?
The short answer is, there is no short answer.
Because what “schedule” means to me is completely different than what it means to some mamas.
I’ll never forget when I was pregnant with Sadie, another mama sent me her baby’s 6 week old “schedule.” It was rigid. Seriously, it was like an itinerary for an international trip. The time slots were all filled out with exactly what time her baby was to eat, sleep, and play–every. single. day.
She told me that if I just stuck to it and had my baby mold to that schedule, then I would be “guaranteed to have a baby that slept through the night.”
Y’all, I am not going to lie–that sounded like a sweet deal. Just make your baby eat and sleep at certain times for the first six weeks and then she will sleep through the night. I mean, who doesn’t want their baby to be a good sleeper?
But then my baby was born and the good Lord gently reminded me that babies aren’t robots, they’re humans. They are tiny humans, with no ability to understand why they would need to wait to eat when they are starving. They are tiny humans with very little tolerance for being forced to stay awake “just a little longer” so that they go to sleep on the hour. They are tiny humans with needs far greater than a predetermined schedule can predict.
So if that’s the kind of “schedule” we are referring to, then no, I do not think babies should be on a schedule.
I don’t (personally) believe that forcing my baby to eat, sleep, and play at exact times is actually beneficial for her. I believe it serves to meet my needs as a parent, but it doesn’t consider or value her needs. Just like adults, babies can have variation in their hunger and in their energy levels. There are days when I am starving for lunch by 11am, and there are other days where I don’t even realize that I missed lunch until 3pm. There are also days that I am exhausted and want a nap when my baby naps, and there are other days that I feel like a super hero and don’t feel exhausted even once.
We don’t control our own hunger and energy on such a rigid level, so why should we do that to our babies?
But before you think I don’t value any structure at all for babies, let me tell you what “schedule” means to me.
To me, schedule = routine. When I say my baby is on a schedule, what I really mean is that she is on a routine. The routine that works best for us, and especially for her, is a baby-led routine. What I mean by that, is that her wake times determine her feeding times and her nap times.
If my baby wakes up at 7am, I pretty much know that (right now) she only stays awake for about two hours at a time, so she will probably nap around 9am. If I had a rigid schedule and her nap time was at 10am, that would mean I would have to force her to stay awake and be over-exhausted so that she stayed “on schedule.” If you’ve ever been out and had your baby go past her nap time, you know just how cruel that feels. A tired baby should be allowed to sleep. And a hungry baby should be fed. So if my baby wakes up 30 minutes earlier than normal and is hungry, I will never make her wait because “it isn’t time.”
Again, babies are not robots. And we need to stop forcing them to be.
So the not-so-short answer to the question, “do babies really need a schedule,” is yes and no. I think that a loose routine is a good and beneficial thing for babies. I think they need some amount of consistency in their little lives. But I certainly don’t think they need a rigid clock based schedule.
The only experience I have is my own, but it hasn’t failed us yet. Our baby girl started sleeping through the night just before four months, but it was definitely not because we followed a schedule that guaranteed it. I think part of it was just the grace of God with stuff we were going through in our personal life, part of it was teaching her healthy sleep habits, and part of it was just pure luck.
Babies will be babies, and there will be some that don’t sleep no matter what. There will be some that sleep right away. And there will be some that regress later on. Sleep is far more complex than any set of rules. We just don’t remember it… because… in the end, we all learn to sleep one way or another.