Be less stressed and get more sleep for baby with flexible routines

Most of my clients come to me frustrated and wanting to get more sleep for baby and themselves.  They feel: 

  • Angry when awoken each morning well before 6 am to a child thinking it’s time to start the day.
  • Self-doubt watching their child melt down each afternoon and not knowing what to do to help.
  • Disconnected from their partner when their child’s lengthy bedtime routine robs them of any time for themselves in the evening.
  • Depleted from a lack of rest as their child still doesn’t sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time through the night.

Frequently, parents come to me looking for a quick fix solution to get more sleep. 

Parents often think that the magic bullet is getting their child on a structured schedule or sleep training program.   These are my type A friends out there. 

Alternately, some parents are resistant to sleep training. They may be following a child-led approach that feels less structured,  These are my my laid-back, type B friends.   They come to me when these approaches aren’t working well in getting everyone in the family the sleep they need. 

But there is a third approach.  It works well for all families whether they lean towards structure or favor a more unstructured lifestyle. 

Creating Flexible Routines will Get More Sleep for Everyone in the Family

A routine is different from a schedule in that it’s a predictable flow of events that guide your day. It is not a strict timeline.  For example, a scheduled approach may say that we wake up our baby everyday at 7 am exactly.  If they wake earlier, we do not go greet them until 7 am.  But a flexible routine would allow for a window of time in which we can expect that baby will wake up. 

In a schedule, there isn’t a lot of room for flexibility because the planned time frame needs to be adhered to for the rest of the plan to run smoothly throughout the day. A flexible routine has a general flow of the day, including timeframes or “windows” for things to happen.  There is much greater leniency in how the day actually unfolds.

So, your child may nap within a similar sleep window, rather than a specific time, depending on their age.   But he or she knows that a nap always comes after play time, lunch and sleep time routine.   Play time  could look like reading a book, going to the park, or any sensory activity you chose for that period of the day during the wakeful window.  It’s flexible.   Then your child eats lunch and you probably have a clean up routine in there too.  You transition to your sleep time routine which could look like going in your child’s sleep space, reading a book, getting on a sleep sack, turning on the sound machine, and singing one last song before sleep time.   

Giving your child an idea of what to expect next as we follow a standard flow for the day provides him or her with comfort and security, as well as it gives you more control of your day. It also eliminates decision fatigue, as you’ll always know what activity comes next based on the routine you are in at that moment. 

I believe that a flexible routine is better than a scheduled approach because:

  1. You avoid feelings of disappointment when you don’t meet the schedule you’ve imposed on yourself.  Maybe baby isn’t asleep at their bedtime of 7:30 pm because you chose to go out to dinner instead of cooking tonight. No problem! You’ll start the bedtime routine as soon as you return home.
  2. You can focus on connecting with your child throughout the day instead of a checklist mentality.   For example, your toddler didn’t clean up the toy room before nap because you chose to cuddle on the couch together and read a book  before nap time instead. 
  3. We can leave room for big emotions to happen.   Your baby is having separation anxiety at 9 months,  so drop off at daycare suddenly becomes more difficult. Instead of getting overly frustrated you leave home a little earlier to accommodate her needs and help her adjust as best you can.

Ultimately, it’s about the routines, not the schedule. And, establishing routines that are working will, over time, create habits that are life-giving to both you and your child. 

The Process of Creating a Routine Little by Little

Our first step in creating a flexible routine is to determine what is currently happening and what routines and patterns we have fallen into. When working with a client, I provide a journaling tool that allows us to look at a 24-hour period broken up into daily time zones, or the general timeframes when we expect to do standard activities such as wake up, eat our main meals, go to bed, and sleep. I call this “nesting in.”  We nest in to see what is really taking place.  

We become a scientist in our own home.  Observe what your child is currently doing and when they are doing it.  Questions you might ask yourself, when is he waking?  When is she eating and  for how long? Is  there a  time of the day  that feels particularly stressful and why?, etc. It’s also important to observe how you are feeling and what you are doing throughout the day too.   Do I have any appointments today? What do I need to feel better? What would I like or need  to get accomplished today? Do I need to eat? Am I dehydrated?

Often, we think we know what our routine and patterns, or habits are.  We always get a clearer picture of what is actually happening when we take the time to observe and document for 48-72 hours.  “Nesting in”  is not the time to “fix” anything, but instead just to observe and document.  Writing things down is a powerful tool.  

Now, evaluate what needs to change to get more sleep

Once you document your current patterns, it will be easier to see that you most likely already have multiple routines for many parts of the day. For instance, you probably have specific things you do and rhythms you follow during morning time, meal time, leaving the house, going to sleep, diapering or using the restroom, getting outside, cleaning up toys, and bedtime.  

After we have a good picture of what is currently happening, we can then better see where we need to make changes in patterns and behaviors. Sometimes, slight shifts to a routine  are all that’s needed; often families need to work to create more consistent and predictable routines that can be repeated through a 24-hour period. Repeating an eat, play, sleep rhythm multiple times throughout the day will provide your baby with predictability.  It gives you a game plan for what to do next. 

Other times we will discover habits that we don’t want to encourage.  For instance, a toddler or preschooler  is busy throughout the day and therefore doesn’t adequately hydrate until he slows down later in the evening.  You may then notice that he drinks lots of fluid before bed. This results in heavy diapers, wetting through pj’s,  or needing to use the potty throughout the night that may cause him to wake up before morning. By just shifting the routine to get him hydrated earlier in the day, we can start to alleviate multiple problems!

Another common issue we find while “nesting in” is the baby becoming dependent on mom feeding to sleep. Although babies need to eat at bedtime, we don’t want them to fall asleep while feeding. Shifting our habits towards adding in a quiet, calming activity between feeding and sleeping, like a bath, singing lullabies or holding baby while reading a book can modify behavior in time.  This will help your baby learn the skill of putting themselves to sleep. 

Be Patient with Yourself and Your Baby

Learning new routines and skills takes time. That’s where the concept of flexibility really comes in! Try not to get frustrated and build in time in your day to start a new routine BEFORE you actually want it to happen. For instance, if you want baby to be asleep by 7:30 pm and you are working on eliminating rocking her to sleep, you may need to start your bedtime routine at 6pm instead of 7 pm to accommodate for the change. These changes often take multiple attempts and practice opportunities throughout the coming days and weeks. You are not a failure if change doesn’t come quickly.  Learning is a process.  The process can be a little messy along the way.  


Getting stressed just thinking about changes you’d like to make in your family’s routine? I would love to help you eliminate that feeling! Get more sleep for baby, (and for you!)  by signing up for a FREE 15 minute call with me to discuss your unique situation. I’ve successfully worked with many families to develop flexible routines that work to encourage connection, restore confidence, and build healthy sleep habits.

Keep calm, confident, and rested!