Infants, schedules and that so-called slippery road

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 9, 2012 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

How important is it to schedule an infant? I'm a first-time mom of a 5-month-old and I'm struggling with this one.

Sample schedules I've seen -- with strict nap times and lengths, etc -- seem a bit "one-size-fits-all." Admittedly, I'm a bit suspicious of any regimen that tells me what my baby needs without knowing him. "At least an hour of sleep, three times a day, is a must." But what if he is happy and functional with only 20 minutes? What if he doesn't like napping that often?

I'm not opposed to routines. We have a bedtime routine, we stick to it and it works. My baby goes to bed at roughly the same time every night, and he sleeps from about 7:30 to 6:30, with just one wake-up around 4:30 a.m. that he is showing signs of growing out of. He's a predictable sleeper, and I do credit routine and perseverance for getting us there. But we never, ever had to let him cry it out. My husband and I practiced "the pause" (Yes, I read 'Bringing up Bebe') and learned to read his sleep habits before jumping up. It worked.

I stay home with the baby and our days, admittedly, have a loose structure. He hates his crib during the day and doesn't like to nap. He gets in scattered "cat naps" in my lap after breastfeeding at roughly the same time and is a pretty happy, alert baby. I tried to put him on a schedule around three months. I couldn't get him to nap in his crib without him crying his heart out, with some serious tears, so I stopped. He was always so happy after short snoozes so I didn't dwell on the issue. I figured that I just didn't get a napper. Relatives and even his pediatrician agreed. (He's either meeting or ahead of schedule with developmental milestones).

I've also seen scheduled babies who seem so dependent on their schedules that they can't function if they miss a nap by even 10 minutes. I was afraid of that, since that doesn't seem healthy, either.

But now he's getting older and I'm second-guessing myself. I watched with horror one night recently as a mother at a CVS said no to a candy purchase, then frantically gave into her crying child when a scene broke out. It may sound like a huge leap, but I witnessed this scene and wondered, is it a slippery slope? Could this be me someday, because I don't have the backbone to let him cry in his crib? Is a basic daytime structure the beginning to a healthy mother-child relationship, with limits and healthy expectations of what happens next? But at what point am I forcing something on the child, without meeting his needs as an individual?

I'm lost. I'd love to hear your opinion on this matter and would love some recommendations for books on napping that don't assume the baby is also up all night.

And thank you.

From: Struggling with Schedule, Medford, MA

Dear Struggling,

1. How important is a schedule?
I put that question to Dennis Rosen, associate medical director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children's Hospital. Here's his answer:

"A schedule is important because it allows the [baby's] internal clock to be synchronized with the external clock, which makes it easier for the child to do what's he's expected to, when he's expected to." Typically, a schedule makes parents' lives easier.

2. Does your baby need to be on a schedule? Rosen and I agree with you, your pediatrician and your family: you don't need to fix what ain't broke.

You don't have a napper because your baby is getting a lot more sleep at night than most babies do. (The typical 5-month-old needs 12 1/2 hours of sleep per 24 hours, Rosen said. That usually breaks down to 9 1/2 hours at night and, two 1½ -hour naps in the day with perhaps a brief cat nap in early evening.) What's more, said Rosen, "It seems to be working well." Your baby is happy and you are, too. Check out Rosen's blog on children's sleep issues at Psychology Today.

He added that at some point, you may no longer like him being on a loose schedule. You may want more predictability. If that happens, "Change your son's sleeping habits by reducing the amount of sleep he has at night," said Rosen, "either by putting him down later or waking him early. Then he will likely need to nap."

3. Does not having a schedule mean you're on the slippery road to being the parent who can't set limits? No.

"There's no correlation between being on a schedule and future behavior," said Rosen. "By not forcing him to nap are you setting him up to be a tyrant? No."

What you saw in CVS may reflect a parent's parenting style in general or it may be about one parent's inability to set limits in that moment. Setting limits in a public place is perhaps the most trying of all circumstances for any of us.

4. I don't know any books specifically about napping. Rosen, however, has an ebook coming on sleep: "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids: Helping your child sleep well and wake up with a smile!" Publisher is Harvard Health Publications and it should be available on Amazon in December.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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4 comments so far...
  1. He's getting the necessary 12 hours of sleep, so he's fine.
    "Backbone" is about insisting on what's best for your child, not about stubbornly sticking to a 'no' once you realize maybe 'no' wasn't the best answer.

    Posted by geocool November 9, 12 10:13 AM
  1. I never created a schedule for my daughter but she fell into her own, as she got older and naps changed I allowed her to decide when they happened. I read her signals, tried to guide her a bit but general left it up to her. No one wants to be forced to nap at a scheduled time or even eat for that matter. I will say that you can create a general and loose schedule. By that I mean, general time of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Also, naps, as kids do need them to keep charged during the day (generally, I do know some non nappers).

    As for the CIO, there are many opinions on it. We did pick up put down, which is what it says. Very lose about it, whatever we felt was right, we stuck to it and it worked. Naps and night time. We did not try until she was 8 months old.

    Babies need to and want to be close to people and snuggled to sleep, it is natural, they did it in the womb and that was their safe place, it is all they knew (know). Ease him into accepting sleep without the constant snuggles, don't force it.

    Oh and after all that, listen to geocool, your instincts are better than what any book or person says.

    Posted by freerocks November 12, 12 05:51 PM
  1. I have the same problem with my almost 6 month old, sleeps pretty good at night, but only gets about 3 short, not scheduled naps (30-45 min) in during the day. Everyone who meets him remarks on how happy he is though (even his daycare workers, they have a hard time with naps for him as well), so I will keep doing what is working for him. I probably could have written this post, even down to the place where you live (I live there too!)

    Posted by fatcat09 November 13, 12 10:22 AM
  1. The problem with the way you are going I predict you will end up with a night waking problem, he won't ever "grow out of" the 4:30am wake up, and pretty soon you'll find yourself making the following excuses "he's waking up at night because he's teething" "he has night terrors" etc. when actually it's because he is overtired. Cat napping is fine for a younger baby, but not ideal for an older baby. You are probably waiting too long between his awake times to put him in his crib. Try first to get him a good morning nap about 1 1/2 hours after he wakes up. It seems crazy that he'd be ready for more sleep, but you'll be amazed that he will just drift off without crying. Don't get him up after 20 mins, that is his light sleep phase and it seems that he's getting used to not sleeping through it. The sleep books say similar things because it's good to aim for a baby's healthy biological rhythms (it's not really about the 3 naps, but that flows out of the maximum time a baby at each age should be up, and the minimum time that is needed for a restorative nap, which is about 45mins.). Some babies need more or less sleep, but all of them benefit from good sleep (American babies sleep much less than babies in any other countries!). 20 minutes is a huge red flag that he is not getting a full nap (all babies go into light sleep then, I used to set my clock and sneek in to rock the basinet to help them learn to get over the hump...) Try reading Weissbluth, it isn't the greatest book but it explains some of this stuff really well. You are totally right you shouldn't be a slave to a rigid schedule, but monitor how long he's up and work at getting him sleeping when it's been too long.

    I don't think you need to worry about becoming the CVS parent, but you're right that a lot of parents have trouble saying no to bad sleep habits, when they are perfectly willing to say no (and put up with some crying) to junk food. Give it a try, you'll all enjoy your lives more with a bit of schedule (think of all the stuff you can get done when he's sleeping for an hour or two!) if you help teach him healthier sleep habits. I went through this with my oldest, when she was 9 months I realized her sleep cycle was a disaster so I did a ton of reading. You won't believe the difference if you get on top of this early! When he's 2 you'll be the envy of the neighborhood, he'll still be taking his nap no problem and not giving you any of those crazy tantrums the no-sleep crowd will have! I know so many people who think it is normal that a 5 or 6 year old child is still getting up at night.

    Good luck with it, you sound very thoughtful and as time goes on you'll find a way that works for your family.

    Posted by Momto3 November 13, 12 02:33 PM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. He's getting the necessary 12 hours of sleep, so he's fine.
    "Backbone" is about insisting on what's best for your child, not about stubbornly sticking to a 'no' once you realize maybe 'no' wasn't the best answer.

    Posted by geocool November 9, 12 10:13 AM
  1. I never created a schedule for my daughter but she fell into her own, as she got older and naps changed I allowed her to decide when they happened. I read her signals, tried to guide her a bit but general left it up to her. No one wants to be forced to nap at a scheduled time or even eat for that matter. I will say that you can create a general and loose schedule. By that I mean, general time of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Also, naps, as kids do need them to keep charged during the day (generally, I do know some non nappers).

    As for the CIO, there are many opinions on it. We did pick up put down, which is what it says. Very lose about it, whatever we felt was right, we stuck to it and it worked. Naps and night time. We did not try until she was 8 months old.

    Babies need to and want to be close to people and snuggled to sleep, it is natural, they did it in the womb and that was their safe place, it is all they knew (know). Ease him into accepting sleep without the constant snuggles, don't force it.

    Oh and after all that, listen to geocool, your instincts are better than what any book or person says.

    Posted by freerocks November 12, 12 05:51 PM
  1. I have the same problem with my almost 6 month old, sleeps pretty good at night, but only gets about 3 short, not scheduled naps (30-45 min) in during the day. Everyone who meets him remarks on how happy he is though (even his daycare workers, they have a hard time with naps for him as well), so I will keep doing what is working for him. I probably could have written this post, even down to the place where you live (I live there too!)

    Posted by fatcat09 November 13, 12 10:22 AM
  1. The problem with the way you are going I predict you will end up with a night waking problem, he won't ever "grow out of" the 4:30am wake up, and pretty soon you'll find yourself making the following excuses "he's waking up at night because he's teething" "he has night terrors" etc. when actually it's because he is overtired. Cat napping is fine for a younger baby, but not ideal for an older baby. You are probably waiting too long between his awake times to put him in his crib. Try first to get him a good morning nap about 1 1/2 hours after he wakes up. It seems crazy that he'd be ready for more sleep, but you'll be amazed that he will just drift off without crying. Don't get him up after 20 mins, that is his light sleep phase and it seems that he's getting used to not sleeping through it. The sleep books say similar things because it's good to aim for a baby's healthy biological rhythms (it's not really about the 3 naps, but that flows out of the maximum time a baby at each age should be up, and the minimum time that is needed for a restorative nap, which is about 45mins.). Some babies need more or less sleep, but all of them benefit from good sleep (American babies sleep much less than babies in any other countries!). 20 minutes is a huge red flag that he is not getting a full nap (all babies go into light sleep then, I used to set my clock and sneek in to rock the basinet to help them learn to get over the hump...) Try reading Weissbluth, it isn't the greatest book but it explains some of this stuff really well. You are totally right you shouldn't be a slave to a rigid schedule, but monitor how long he's up and work at getting him sleeping when it's been too long.

    I don't think you need to worry about becoming the CVS parent, but you're right that a lot of parents have trouble saying no to bad sleep habits, when they are perfectly willing to say no (and put up with some crying) to junk food. Give it a try, you'll all enjoy your lives more with a bit of schedule (think of all the stuff you can get done when he's sleeping for an hour or two!) if you help teach him healthier sleep habits. I went through this with my oldest, when she was 9 months I realized her sleep cycle was a disaster so I did a ton of reading. You won't believe the difference if you get on top of this early! When he's 2 you'll be the envy of the neighborhood, he'll still be taking his nap no problem and not giving you any of those crazy tantrums the no-sleep crowd will have! I know so many people who think it is normal that a 5 or 6 year old child is still getting up at night.

    Good luck with it, you sound very thoughtful and as time goes on you'll find a way that works for your family.

    Posted by Momto3 November 13, 12 02:33 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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