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A Matter of Routine

With advice varying from establishing strict feeding and sleeping routines with very young babies, to allowing our children the freedom to make their own choices, whatever their age, what is a parent supposed to do? We look at the pros and cons of establishing routines.

By Dr Helen Andrews

baby playing

The history of routines and child-rearing.

It is one of the most commonly held discussions between soon-to-be grandparents and soon-to-be parents –

“will you be feeding on demand or three or four-hourly?”

It was a brave new mum in the 1960s and early 70s that asked the midwife to bring their baby to them whenever they cried, so they could feed. On-demand feeding has grown in popularity since then, with some strong evidence behind it, but the old ideas are still there and have vocal advocates.
Today, parents can feel anxious and uncertain about what they are supposed to do. Should baby be sleeping through the night by now? Is it wrong to allow your baby to suckle for comfort, rather than a full feed? In some ways, it seems so central to the whole role of parenthood – who’s supposed to be in charge, you or the baby? Because it is easy to feel full of doubt, it is also easy to perceive criticism from others; family, friends or other mums, whether it is intended or not. Think about your own views on routines, and other issues, find out what you can, accept that different people do it in different ways and trust in yourself.


What is the definition of a routine?

A routine is “a sequence of actions, regularly followed”. It is important to remember it is about consistency a pattern, not a rigid timetable.


What do we know about young babies and routines?

Very young babies live in the moment. They experience a sensation (hunger, tiredness, boredom) and communicate their distress. They don’t really understand what the feeling is but they do know they feel uncomfortable. They call to us to make them feel better. They don’t understand the difference between day and night. They don’t yet have the experience to know that you might be a few minutes but then you’ll come.
They certainly won’t understand that they need to wait until a set time before their needs can be met. To ask this of them is unfair. We need to live in the moment, with our babies. In those first few days and weeks, there is no place for a ‘routine’.
For most first time mums, the very idea of trying to set a routine – to be up and dressed by a certain time, to eat full meals at traditional times and so on, is overwhelming - in relation to themselves, never mind their baby.


As time goes by...

Over time though, things change. It might take six weeks or six months, but mum and baby get to know each other.

Baby seems to settle a bit – feed better, cry less.

Now there can be advantages to thinking about routines. Some routines naturally develop – maybe baby seems to sleep at certain times, more often than not. Others need more thought and planning. Now may be the time to help baby learn more about the difference between night time and day time. Routines around the time, place and activities that happen before being put to bed help to cue him or her in to what happens next.


What are the advantages of routines?

We are all creatures of habit, to a greater or lesser degree, and babies and toddlers are the same. To have a sense of what to expect, to know that being carried to the changing mat leads to an increase in comfort, or that songs cuddling up to mum are followed by being placed in your cot all of these things make the world a more predictable place. It leads to a reduction in their anxiety levels and an increase in their sense of safety and security. When babies and children feel safe, then they can turn their attention and energies to other matters – growing, developing and engaging with the world through exploration and social interaction. The important stuff.
outines can also help us, as parents, to manage our days. As a new parent, the day can just seem to stretch out, never ending. Routines can help us break the day up. Most people need some structure in their life. If routines help us feel calmer and happier, then that is good for our baby. If they make us feel more anxious and stressed, then that can be a problem.

baby sleeping

So there can be disadvantages?

Routines need to be flexible. There will be days when your usual routines go completely out of the window. This needs to be OK. Routines also need to be developed slowly. There is the risk of setting yourself and your child up to ‘fail’ if you, for example, suddenly expect them to be able to settle themselves at night. It can be helpful if you have an idea of how you want things to be, take into account what your baby is telling you about how they want things to be, and then both move towards your goal together.
Beware ‘experts’ that tell you how things will be (the irony!). If ‘the book’ says that the routine will be:

baby eats, then plays, then sleeps – what if yours eats, then sleeps, then plays?

If you manage to find a book that happens to fit in with you, your baby and your life, great. If not, imagine your own book, personal to you. If it works for you and your baby, it’s right for you and your baby.


Routines and toddlers.

We can see that routines need to be flexible. As our babies grow and develop, their routines will have to develop with them. You are likely to still have routines around bedtimes and mealtimes but they will have changed and there will be more now. Routines around getting ready to go out, about being dropped off at grandparents or nursery, about tidying up, around which parent does which activity and how … These routines are teaching your toddler about the world and about relationships. They are also going to help him or her to manage transitions and regulate strong emotions. They can reduce the number of tantrums that can be triggered by uncertainty and anxiety.


And then there were two …

Whether you were for or against routines with your first child, having two (or more) changes everything. Whereas before, you may have let baby sleep until they woke naturally, now you’ve got a nursery drop-off to do.
Their natural nap time is two till three-thirty – just when you need to do the school pick up. Typical! Although this can undoubtedly be a stressful and frustrating time for parents,

it is also when you realise just how flexible babies can be.

Your new baby will need enough sleep, milk and cuddle time in order to thrive but now you don’t need to wrestle with when the best time to do this is – your other commitments will create that structure for you.


So what is the verdict on routines?

Routines are there to help us, to decrease stress in mother and baby – if they’re having the opposite effect, then they’re not working for you or your baby and you need to take the pressure off yourself.
Very young babies don’t need routines, they need parents that are there for them, whenever they need them.
There are definite advantages to introducing flexible routines with older babies and toddlers. Routines are frameworks on which the rest of our experiences hang. We all have different lives and different priorities, united by wanting the best for our children, so of course there is nothing routine about routines.

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More Information about Dr Helen Andrews

Dr Helen Andrews is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years of experience working with children and young people.
Through her business, Family Matters in Warwickshire, she helps parents when they can see that their child is struggling with their emotions, behaviour or development. She focuses on early intervention as the evidence is clear that it is never too early to ask for help.
Family Matters supports prospective parents through the final stages of pregnancy, new parents struggling with the challenges of infancy and toddlerhood and more experienced parents too.
You can contact Helen on 01564 795337 and you can find out more at

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