When a baby is born, she doesn’t know night from day. Literally. She knows when she’s hungry, when she’s tired and when she’s got something bothering her in the diaper. It matters little to her if such things occur at 3pm or 3am. So it’s up to the parent to set the clock, jump-starting the circadian rhythm if you will, after the first couple of months of outside-the-womb life. It becomes especially important if the parent wants to start getting some sleep and not have to deal with a baby who suddenly wants to play at midnight.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
The baby will almost always take her cues from her primary caregiver and store them in her brain for future contemplation. But, like with all things related to babies, it takes a while for the knowledge to sink in. For the first two or three months of the baby’s life out-of-womb, it might not seem like she’s really paying attention… After all, you’re still getting up for at least two or three night feedings and can’t sleep for more than two hours at a time. She still needs to be fed on demand and there’s no helping that. Slowly but surely, however, the baby will start realizing that certain things happen when there’s a lot of light outside. And, conversely, some things don’t happen when there isn’t a lot of light outside.
Imagine watching yourself from the baby’s perspective. When it’s daylight outside, Mommy (or Daddy) tends to do the dishes and get the laundry going. You guys go to the park or run for groceries and see all sorts of new, different people. You wear something other than your jammies! You might even play with certain toys, ones that make a lot of noise and sounds. As it starts getting dark outside, you watch your parents fiddle with things on the wall that make stuff on the ceiling go bright. The most active thing you seem them do is cook dinner and eat. Even the toys you play with are quieter. You get put into your jammies again. And you certainly don’t see anyone else other than your parents, except maybe some relatives from time to time.
After seeing such things unfold day after day after day, the baby will begin to grasp the concept of time in a broad sense. Eventually, that knowledge will translate itself to utilizing nighttime for sleep and saving (or restoring) energy for the daytime when she can play and learn!
When you’re sleep-deprived, doing even the simplest of chores can seem like a Herculean feat. Dishwasher Tetris used to be fun up until your brain stopped being able to name that flat piece of earthenware, let alone find a place for it in a dish rack. So start with small, incremental steps as it becomes comfortable for you.
I started with reading. I’m not much of a TV person so a lot of the feedings happened by the computer where I could read things out loud without worrying about having a free hand to hold a book open and flip pages. Every feeding during the day was accompanied by some sort of reading: the World of Warcraft Encyclopedia, fragments of game lore, boss strategies and, later on, The Lord of the Rings when I could free up a hand. (No, those aren’t what you’d think as typical baby reading material but, early on, it doesn’t matter what you’re reading to the baby so long as she can hear the rise and fall of your voice to understand what conversation sounds like.)
In the same vein, I always kept daytime feedings in one of two rooms in the house: the computer room or the sitting area. Both had a lot of windows to let in plenty of light with different views. At night, the feedings always happened in the rocking chair in the nursery with a little music or just soft, lulling silence.
From there, I worked up to going to get groceries with her in between feedings and naps. Then came doing the laundry, letting her watch me fold clothes. Running the dishwasher happened in two parts, since I was afraid that a clanky, noisy dishwasher might frighten her: one, where she would be in a different room and the noise would be lessened, but still audible; and two, where she’d be in clear earshot of everything once she started getting used things.
Setting a Routine
Of course, as adults, we know nothing happens exactly the same from day to day. Certain things happen everyday, like having meals, but even the things you eat might be different. This is why I’m a bigger proponent of routines rather than schedules. Schedules imply that specific things happen at specific times, regardless of what else is going on. That just doesn’t fly with a baby whose needs may not always fit into a schedule, as it happened with my daughter and me. Some experts call this method the combination schedule or a parent-and-baby-led schedule (though “schedule” is used loosely in this context). The parent sets the framework of “What Needs to Happen,” often based on observation of the baby herself, and the baby sets the pace by giving her parent cues toward what she needs.
For example, the framework I have set up for my daughter at this stage is three full meals, a snack and at least one nap; nighttime ritual means dinner, being in jammies, storytime and then bed. Since birth, her non-poop diaper changes usually happen before or after meals (events of diaper rash always call for more frequent changes). Everything else depends on variables according to the baby. Maybe it’s overcast outside and it makes her sleepy, so she will nap a couple of times in the day and shy away from doing anything too “exciting.” If it’s sunny outside, she becomes really active and requires one long nap in the early afternoon to refresh herself. Low-key, quiet mornings give way to a busy afternoon of running errands with Mommy.
I know I have things to take care of but, if they’re not particularly pressing issues (and you’ll come to realize that very few things are), I let them go. Sometimes I have to spread out errands over a couple of days! There was a time when I often had to cut things short because she pooped and there wasn’t a changing area in sight. Admittedly, it used to make me pretty mad because I was used to getting things done when I said they’ll get done. But there’s honestly more to life– yours and the baby’s– than marking things off a to-do list. I still utilize the baby’s napping time for things like vacuuming (she’s still petrified of the vacuum) or baking (she doesn’t like the electric mixer, either) and even eating, especially now when she tends to want whatever I’m eating more than what’s on her tray.
A parent-and-baby-led day also offers a lot of flexibility. The thing I keep thinking of is the possibility of traveling and we end up in a different time zone. I can’t really imagine dealing with jet lag as a baby and I don’t relish the thought. A baby who’s set on routine rather than a schedule knows things will happen in due time because of cues from Mom and Dad, as well as the general time of day. Theoretically, that’s how it works, anyway. Whether it happens or not, I’ll let you know if/when I travel.
So, regardless of the individual things that happen in a day, the baby is still firmly grounded on a solid foundation based on routine. I’ve realized there’s no forcing a baby to conform to a strict schedule. What if the baby decides she’s not quite hungry at 12pm on a given day?
And babies like routine. They like some modicum of predictability. They really aren’t fans of “new stuff” until they get used to it.