Baby whisperer tips

Eat, play, love 

How soon is too soon to put your newborn into a routine? Baby whisperer Dorothy Waide gives her expert opinion

In all my years of experience as a baby consultant two questions I'm always asked are, "Can I put my baby into a routine now?" and, "Is it okay to hold my baby?" What I've learnt is that establishing a baby's routine is not about clock-watching, but more about responding to your baby's needs.

So, the answer to both questions is yes, if you follow some basic principles.  

How much routine is too much? 
Your baby's emotional wellbeing is much more important in the first 12 weeks than establishing a defined routine. Many parents are scared that if they don't introduce a routine from day one their baby will become spoilt and manipulative. They don't realise that by responding to their baby's needs a routine will naturally develop through nurturing and I believe that nurturing goes a long way in creating a stable and expressive child. When it comes to implementing a routine, you as a parent need to decide whether you want to take the nurturing route or the highly structured route.
Some parents decide to put their babies on a strict schedule from day one. I believe that is more often intended to meet the needs of the parents rather than the baby. The alternative is the nurtured approach - when your baby wakes and cries, you respond. If she is hungry you feed her, if she has a dirty nappy you change it. In other words, routine for a baby under 11 weeks is about responding, not ignoring.

Feeding routines
The following suggested routines are based on a nurturing parenting style that recognises this new life needs to be embraced into an established lifestyle but that "teaching" your baby is based on patient guidance rather than unbending enforcement. We'll start with feeding.
When looking at the overall picture of a feeding routine I define my feeds as social feeds, the last feed of the day, business feeds and dream feeds.

Social feeds: These are daytime feeds. When the baby wakes you:

  • feed
  • burp and change her nappy
  • finish feeding
  • cuddles and floor time
  • back to bed

Last feed of the day: This is when I bathe the baby, normally around 5-6pm. The routine is:

  • feed
  • burp, baby on foor while running bath
  • bathe
  • top up feed and burp
  • back to bed

This feed takes a little longer and hopefully the baby settles down quickly.  
My golden rule is that as long as the baby is putting on weight, is weeing and pooing then I don't wake her. I do find that most babies will sleep their longest from here onwards. So, my motto is don't wake a sleeping baby. 
I have found that if you let your baby go from her last feed of the day (bath time) she naturally starts sleeping for longer in the night - often to around 11pm. Yes, it is a pain going to bed and then getting up again when your baby wakes but trust me, it's for such a short time it's worth it as your baby is likely to start sleeping through the night more quickly.

Business feeds: I refer to these as my "anti-social" feeds. They start from 10pm through to the first social feed of the day. If you are not an early riser you may class a 6am feed as a business feed. The routine is the same as for social feeds with no cuddles or floor time. By keeping stimulation to a minimum your baby will quickly learn and accept that at night there's no extra time awake.
It is important to remember that, however you feed your baby during the day, you have to expect to do the same at night and this is where a lot of parents come unstuck. It is only natural at night to be tempted to do a quick feed then back to bed. Be warned, from what I have seen, this may defeat your objectives as it normally results in the baby waking more and having an unsettled night. It is important to do a full feed including burping and changing. Although you may be up a little longer your baby should settle better.

Dream feeds: These are parent-led feeds and in my opinion, if the baby is sleeping there is no benefit in having this feed. Dream feeds can set the baby up for waking more often in the night.
Obviously, dream feeds are one aspect of routines that you need to work out for yourself. It may seem a good option when you start doing it, but I have found that a lot of sleeping (in particular night-waking) and feeding issues from around four months onwards are a consequence of the dream feed. Just because you may have decided you no longer want to do a dream feed or that you think your baby no longer needs it that doesn't necessarily mean your baby will feel the same and it can be a very difficult element to drop from your baby's routine. 
Another aspect to consider when opting to dream feed is that a baby's brain and body grows and develops while sleeping and when interrupting this sleep for a feed you are in fact disturbing her growth time. Make sure you are well informed, do your research and then make your own decision.

Sleeping routines
Sleeping is a learned behaviour. We need to guide babies and teach them to sleep. I believe that the best way is to put your baby into bed wide awake and after that initial attempt of getting her to sleep, only then pick her up and hold her until she eventually goes to sleep. I recommend parents position themselves so they can remain still and use their body as a bed. Remember your body represents your baby's cot and if the cot doesn't move then neither should you. Movement is counter productive as it can lead to waking when the baby is transferred to her cot. It can be a quick fix but a difficult fix to change as the baby gets older and harder to hold or grows out of the pram or hammock.

Have some TACT
As with establishing feeding, good sleep routines take Time, Acceptance, Consistency and Touch (TACT).
The most important skill parents can teach babies is that of self-settling. It teaches babies how to gain control over their emotional state and this in turn leads to them developing their emotional backbone as they grow.
For this age group my standard routine is that the baby is awake for an hour and then asleep anywhere from one to two hours before waking and starting the routine again. This is the only time I use the clock as a guideline. Yes, babies do have tired signs but as a new parent you are exhausted and until you get to know your baby you are unlikely to be able to read them correctly. 
Around 45 minutes to an hour within this routine, I swaddle my babies and put them to bed. In their frst two weeks it's okay to let them sleep wherever you want them but after that initial fortnight  I suggest you start teaching them to sleep in a bedroom. Babies need to learn that bedrooms are for sleeping and sitting rooms are for fun and action. So, put your baby down in her bassinet or cot with the blinds or curtains closed.
My favorite expression when putting a baby to bed is that you "dump and run". Don't be tempted to hover, just leave the room quickly and pull the door closed. If it makes you happier use a baby monitor. 
Once you have left the room you will probably have just enough time to clean your teeth, go to the toilet or grab a drink before you respond to your baby's cry. Respond means you will go back in, pick the baby up, hold her very firmly (I call it engulfng) and sit down. At this stage I don't do anything to try to calm her, as it is the baby's way of de-stressing or unwinding before finding sleep. 
As adults, when we go to bed we might read a book, meditate, watch TV or chat to our partner. A baby can do only one thing - cry. It is actually healthy for her to cry before going to sleep. For parents, it is difficult to hear but as long as your baby is happy and contented you need to accept it as part of life.
Once I feel the baby has cried enough (you judge, it can be a minute or five which is okay while she is in your arms), I intervene with either a dummy, "sssh" noise or patting. You will find she goes to sleep and at this age, I will let her sleep in my arms until she goes from a light to heavy sleep, usually around 45 minutes. While she is in my arms I remain still as my body represents her bed so whatever her bed does then my body can do it. If she starts stirring or crying I will start patting again. Once she has been asleep for an hour or has moved into heavy sleep then I will attempt to put her into bed.

When she is in bed, I put one hand on her chest while the other pats her bottom to stop her waking up. When patting, you are giving your baby very slight movement, rather like jiggling and you may also choose to use the "sssh" noise. If you prefer, you can sing but whatever you do make it consistent. Once your baby is asleep remove your hand from her chest then, if she doesn't wake, pat lighter until you think you can stop and then leave the room. If baby wakes again you will need to redo the whole cycle.

This routine is repeated throughout the day and night. With time, the amount of help with settling should decrease and your baby will learn how to self-settle.
By 11 weeks baby will be up slightly longer between sleeps, having more play times and sleeping longer at night.


Including other children
For parents who have other children at home, it can be very difficult and time-consuming to nurture a new addition to the family in this way. It is not impossible but it does require more organisation. I tell my mothers to get as much done as possible in the mornings, while the baby is having floor time. If you have a toddler at home during the day, involve him in the care of the baby, whether it's by role-playing or getting a nappy for you - it's just making sure you include him.
     If you use television as a distraction show educational programmes. Ask extended family or close friends to help out with meals, household tasks and caring for your other children so as to free you up to deal with your baby.
     Babies can adapt very easily and if you need to do the school run transfer the baby from car seat to bed. When transferring, if you don't stimulate her she will learn to go back to sleep. She will have some disturbed sleep times but if you are out, on returning home make sure you transfer her from the car seat and either into your arms or into bed and start resettling from there.



Take your time
My best advice to a parent of a newborn is to prepare to cocoon yourself at home with your baby for at least the first six weeks. In my experience, it takes around six weeks to establish breastfeeding and a minimum of six weeks to find your feet. It may sound like a long time with the abundance of celebrity "bounce back" stories. However, unless you have a nanny, housekeeper, nutritionist and personal trainer on your team, I believe it's a realistic time frame.


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Dorothy Waide qualifed in 1973 as a Karitane Baby Nurse. Since 1990 she has been working around the world helping new mums and dads, including some A-list celebrity clients such as Catherine Zeta Jones and Russell Crowe. She is now back in New Zealand passing on "mother craft" skills to NZ families.

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