Sleep routines and scheduling Part I: Some general recommendations

The final set of recommendations for sleep-training methods that I'll summarize in this series of posts about specific techniques is kind of hard to paraphrase in some pithy heading. It's not really a method per se, but a general philosophy or approach, I guess you'd call it. What I've labeled here as "sleep routines and scheduling" encompasses a bunch of general pointers for making kids more amenable to sleeping longer and better. This approach to sleep training involves creating good sleep habits from a very young age. It generally focuses on putting babies on sleeping and feeding schedules that promote children’s capacity to sleep through the night and nap regularly. Perhaps the best-known manual for this approach is Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. But in truth, most grandmothers with lots of experience child rearing have given the same advice for decades, probably centuries. 

The rationale for this approach is that babies and toddlers have natural, neurologically-based sleep rhythms that should be respected. It is the parents’ job to structure the child’s day and night such that sleep is optimized. The goal is to get babies and toddlers to sleep for age-appropriate durations throughout the day and night by watching the baby’s cues and following a handful of tips. There are about five main tips that can help children fall into healthy sleep habits.  Some may be counterintuitive, but they are generally all “tried and true” techniques.

(1)    Sleep begets sleep. The more a child naps during the day, the more likely it is that she will sleep longer and wake less frequently during the night.
(2)    If a child is waking up frequently during the night or waking up far too early, put the child to sleep earlier in the night (rather than the more intuitive later bedtime).
(3)    Do not allow babies younger than 4 months or so to stay awake for more than 1-2 hours at a time during the day.
(4)    Watch for tell-tale signs of fatigue and put your baby down for a nap or for bedtime as soon as you see these signs. The sleepy signs include the baby rubbing her eyes, yawning, batting her ears, whining or fussing, and so on.
(5)    Use the same bedtime routine every night (often including bath, bottle, breastfeeding, stories, rocking, and so on).

Another tip comes from a number of online sources, the origins of which are difficult to pinpoint. I came upon it on the parenting advice blog, AskMoxie. It’s called the 2-3-4 nap rule and an astonishing number of babies between the ages of about 6 and 18 months end up conforming to this rule eventually. Keeping it in mind was enormously helpful for scheduling our boys’ naps. The idea is that 2 hours after the baby wakes up in the morning, put him down for his first nap (whether you see the signs of fatigue or not). Then, 3 hours after he wakes from that first nap, put him down for his second nap. Then, 4 hours after he wakes from that second nap, put him down for the night. So, for babies who sleep during the night from approximately 7 PM until 7 AM (hahahahahahah!  Most of you wouln't be reading this silly blog if your kids were sleeping through on that schedule, but let's dare to dream, shall we?) the sleep and wake periods fall out roughly as follows:

7:00 AM – Wake for the day
9:00 AM – First nap
10:00 AM – Wake from first nap
1:00 PM – Second nap
3:00 PM – Wake from second nap
7:00 PM – Bedtime

Generally, after the child is around 12-18 months, she drops the first morning nap and the afternoon nap can get a little longer and perhaps start a little earlier.

There are a whole lot more tips and tricks for maximizing children's nap times and helping them sleep better during the night that can be categorized under this general rubric of sleep routines and schedules.  What are/were your favourite tips? What seemed to work for EVERYONE else's kids but never worked for your little one? What do you wish you were told about children's sleep schedules and routines that you know now?  

10 thoughts on “Sleep routines and scheduling Part I: Some general recommendations

  1. You all may hate me but my baby fell perfectly into this schedule. Not right away mind you, but sometime around four months or so. He still woke up for night-time feedings up until about seven months. Getting him on this schedule was a life saver to the months of unpredictability that preceded it.
    He did drop the morning nap around twelve months. Now at two-years-old he gets up around 7 AM, naps from 12:30 to 3 PM (give or take) and goes to bed at 7:15 PM (all times approximate).
    I guess my only advice it to try it and see if it works for you. Some people (like my mother-in-law) thought I was being crazy for adjusting my schedule to his naps but it worked so well for both of us it was worth it to me. And now he’s a really good sleeper.

  2. The 2-3-4 rule saved me with both kids. So easy and it works. It also doesn’t impose any ‘normal’ nap lengths that leave you scratching your head wondering why your child’s naps are shorter/longer than 90 minutes.
    To everyone who is struggling to figure things out, I really recommend giving it a try. Chances are, your baby is doing something similar to this already and you just haven’t formalised it in a routine.

  3. I have to say the 2-3-4 doesn’t work at all for my 4-month-old. Some doulas who helped us sleep-train the first gave us a rule that does work for us: many babies seem to follow a consistent window between naps. That is, they go the same period of time, generally about two hours, of wakefulness from the end of one nap to the beginning of the other. My daughter’s window seems to be a little longer, more like 2.5 hours.
    She’s sleeping very well for her age overall, so I have no complaints. The main problem is that I’m having trouble keeping her last nap from going too late and then her bedtime in turn ending up at around 11 (!). In part this seems to be a tradeoff with her tendency to take a very long midday nap (often 3-4 hours, sometimes even 5). It goes against every fiber of my being to wake her up from these, but maybe that’s what I need to do.

  4. 2-3-4 has been working for us since 7 months when my son went from 4 short naps to 2 longer naps. He is now 12 months and we’re still on that routine.
    We have recently had to impose a time that he must wake up from his second nap though otherwise he won’t go to bed no matter what time you put him down. Although I hate waking him up from naps, it keeps his sleep somewhat regulated. If he goes to bed late he only wakes up earlier (like 5:30am, ugh).
    I’m still in awe of kids who sleep 12 hours at night. An average night for my son is 10.5 hours. Maybe when he drops a nap?

  5. Finally some category I fall into! We are big Weissbluth fans in this house, mainly because the science in the book talking about neurological basis of sleep made sense to us. Even though we played around with all the other methods- a little bit of Ferber, a smidgen of Hogg, a pinch of Pantley, we always kept the 5 “rules” in mind. Both kids sleep 7 to 7 (or 6.30 to 6.30) nowadays. The baby still wakes up at 4am for a snack, but he goes straight back to sleep (barring colds, teething, being a baby).
    The kid fell in to the 2-3-4 routine really quickly, but the kidlet (eight months), not so much. Right now, he goes down for his morning nap 70 minutes after waking up. Heaven help me if I miss that 10 minute window between 60 and 70 minutes. If I get it right, he’s in the 1-2-4 schedule, with 2 lovely long naps. If I miss that window, he’s in the 1-1-2-3 schedule and overtired in the afternoon.
    But we fight with my family on a fairly regular basis because we believe in early bedtimes. We keep getting told that if we put our kids down later, we would get to sleep in past 7am. We explain that like KP, later bed always means earlier wakup. This summer, when we were camping, the family learned this the hard way, when they kept both boys (3 year old and then-6-month old) up till 10pm despite my protests. When they were both up and raring to go at 5:30am, we sent them to other people’s tents and let them deal with it :)

  6. To me it seems everyone’s children except for mine are able to sleep in the stroller regardless of age. My boys gave up sleeping in the stroller past the 6 month stage- the world was too exciting to look at. Now at 3 and 17months- i wish i could walk them around while they nap.
    Things that worked for us- for both the 2-3-4 worked starting at about 5 months, consistent bedtime routine, and white noise in the form of ocean waves really really help our kids. They still use the white noise at night which makes me a little worried about transition them but in condo living with so much noise around it’s been a great tool. Also, the crib without one of it’s sides in a sidecar position was great to help transition from cosleeping to independent sleeping.
    Last, I wish with my first child, I had felt strong enough to be able to let him sleep on his own. I don’t regret it but I think it may have resulted in more quality sleep and less frustration. Then again maybe not.

  7. Yay! At last a sleep post that I can comment on from experience!!!!
    My kids are/were all 7-7 sleepers from about 4 months. They didn’t fall into a 2-3-4 daytime pattern during the day, but like Laurel, I was/am REALLY careful (obsessive) about a consistent wake window between naps, especially in the first 4 months. This window grew slowly but surely as the babies got older. Currently my 8.5month DS is 2.25hrs-2.5hrs between naps.
    I have had issues (like fahmi) with grandparents etc who insisted that ‘he doesn’t look tired to me’ when it was naptime. Those comments still bug me!!! Who else but the mother studies the baby well enough to know the tell-tale signs BEFORE the baby is too tired to sleep????
    My best tip (in addition the tried-and-true above): especially around 2-4 months, drop everything and RUN, don’t walk, put the baby into bed AS SOON AS he/she starts the tired signs.
    My other tip: babies change tired signs as they get older. Sometimes they stop showing any tired signs at all!!!

  8. Here’s proof that kids are contrary creatures. Just as I mention that for the most part, we have 7to7 nights, the kid decides to wake up at midnight and stand by the window. Singing. Loudly. For A Solid Hour. *sigh* Kidlet decides to wake up at 9:30 and cry for two hours. Since Weissbluth says to ignore, we did, at least for an hour, and then we felt guilty because he is just recovering from being sick, so I went in to hold him. He screamed and thrashed for another hour, and my co-workers are all asking about the scratches on my face today. *SIGH*

  9. Just re-reading your post, and tip #1 suddenly struck me. I have heard and read and believed this for years… but why is it so? Why does sleep beget sleep? Why does an overtired baby/child resist sleep?
    I’m interested in your views, Bella!

  10. My (now 11 month old) son did 2-3-4 for about 2 weeks and that quickly moved to 3-3-4 and then it switched to 3-2.5-4.5 at some point as well…hahaha!!! We just roll with it and try to observe tiredness cues (harder to do now that he is older.)

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