What is a good sleep routine?

What is a good sleep routine?

Baby's hand holding a red clock, on top of a blue blanket

Let's talk about sleep routines

Are sleep routines a good or a bad thing for babies?  Do they help them sleep better?  Well, it’s not entirely as simple as saying “Yes! A routine will help your baby sleep better”. If it was, I wouldn’t be writing this, we’d all have our babies in a routine and there would be no need for sleep consultants, sleep apps or sleep books! 

For years, parents have sworn by the strict routines. In fact, strict routines have been around for at least a hundred years. Back in the day, a few (male) authority figures decided that babies need strict routines, and wrote books on how best to bring up babies, without any scientific basis for their claims (or any actual experience of babies!). For example, some of these ideas include: that crying is good for their lungs, that babies should only be fed at regular intervals, and that they should be able to sleep through the night by 4 months and be able to self-settle. These were first published in 1894, with no scientific basis at all! (Holt, 2000) Don’t they sound familiar? These ideas are so pervasive, that books like Gina Ford’s The Contented Little Baby Book is still a popular choice for parents, with many parents hoping it will bring some order and control to the chaos and uncertainty of parenting. (I’m in no way endorsing that book by the way!)


Do routines work?

Well, they might. They probably work for some babies – maybe for around 15-20%. (Harries and Brown, 2017) I think, however, that the evidence is that these routines are restrictive, unsupportive of successful breastfeeding, and not really in line with what we know about normal infant behaviour, and generally not great for parents’ mental health.  Interestingly, what the research has found is that parents who try to use these types of routines actually have higher levels of postnatal depression and more feelings of inadequacy about their parenting skills. (Harries and Brown, 2017) Instead of throwing the book out and saying “This doesn’t work”, parents are more likely to feel like they are failing as parents or that their baby is “broken” because they can’t stick to the routines. That’s not good, is it? 

What if you're not a routine person?

Some people just hate the thought of being stuck indoors, slave to a nap schedule. If this is you, then you’re going to love the approach taken in the Neuroprotective Developmental Care of Babies (NDC)! Established by Dr Pamela Douglas in Australia, it’s a complete package looking at sleep, feeding, and the emotional wellbeing of babies and parents. I absolutely loved The Discontented Little Baby Book that she wrote (see what she did there?), and it led me to become accredited in NDC. I find the NDC approach works REALLY well for parents, especially parents with very young babies.

The NDC approach to sleep is to do very little to actively facilitate sleep during the day.  It encourages parents to get out of the house and go about their normal activities with baby in tow and provide a stimulating environment for baby.  If baby sleeps along the way, well and good, but the idea is to just take enough of the sleep pressure off to keep baby going until night time,  which when most of the sleep should happen.  So, if the thought of having to be stuck in the house at the same times every day for naps doesn’t appeal to you, then definitely look at this method (or chat to me about it!). 

I instinctively did something like this with my first baby, as she always slept easier when I was out and about, but fought sleep at home. My second was the complete opposite, he’s always held off sleeping until he could get home and into bed. It means travelling has always been a dream with baby number one, and a complete nightmare with baby number two, but sleep at home as been the other way around.  As we say in Northern Ireland, swings and roundabouts. 

So, is it ok to have a routine or not??

Well, I’m a big fan of being flexible, and responsive to children. However, a lot of us DO function better with a bit of a routine. I certainly liked knowing that the opportunity for a quiet cuppa while a baby slept, wasn’t too far away. And let’s face it, there are some babies that just like regular patterns, and the same cues for sleep. 

As I mentioned before, rigid schedules that force babies to sleep in a particular way only work for a small number of babies. But what about a flexible sleep routine? 

I think that there are some good principles where sleep is concerned:

  • Start your day at the same time every morning. That means that everything else falls into place at roughly the same time. 
  • Follow your child’s lead for sleep, rather than prescriptive wake windows. If they are ready to sleep, most babies fall asleep easily within 10-20 minutes. This means that your nap/bedtime was well timed.
  • Space naps out evenly throughout the day.
  • Cat naps are fine. There is no need to try to extend a nap. 
  • Don’t try to achieve a twelve hour night in bed for your baby. Most babies just can’t achieve it! 10 hours might be more realistic. 
Rather than going for something too rigid, work around your child. I bet you’ll find it a lot less frustrating than the regimented schedule prescribed in the baby book you’ve read. 

If you’re interested in a responsive, flexible approach to sleep, why not schedule a call with me?


Douglas, P ( 2014) The Discontented Little Baby Book, University of Queensland Press, Queensland

Harries, V and Brown, A (2017) The association between infant parenting books that promote strict routines, and maternal depression, self-efficacy, and parenting confidence, Early Child Development and Care, accessed 12/01/2019: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03004430.2017.1378650?needAccess=true&journalCode=gecd20

Holt, LE (2020) The Care and Feeding of Children, Outlook, Frankfurt

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