Tips &

Tips &

Do babies really need routines?

May 2023
Janthea Brigden
More Tips & Tales

Working in Europe recently, at a large international event, I was struck once again by the children’s confidence, curiosity and ability to connect and attach with our staff. When I ask whether the children have routines, the parents smile ruefully. Their children have to be able to adapt easily to fit in with their lifestyle and that doesn’t always follow a timetable.

To routine or not to routine? 

I’ve noticed that these parents are very focused on connection and attachment. I’ve also noticed that they often use slings and are long-term breastfeeding for ease and portability. They follow the bio-rhythms of the child, allowing them to eat and sleep when they need to. 

By contrast, the strict routines imposed on some children in the UK seem often to produce children who need to be told what to do and when - mini robots! 

“Baby must have half a banana at 10:30 then she will do a poo at 11:00. Put baby down after the poo and they will sleep until 12:00, but no longer or the afternoon sleep will be later and then we will all have a bad night!”

I confess my heart drops when I hear parents giving my staff regimented routine details, as realistically, in our type of temporary childcare, they are impossible to follow. When we are honest about that, some parents find it really difficult and become very distressed about childcare routines having to be more flexible for a few days. 

My own children had no set routines and I really struggle when I hear parents insist that children ‘need routines’.

In my experience, it’s adults that need routines, not children. This is fine, but let’s just be honest and admit that, rather than try to blame the children for this ‘need’. 

Nature vs Nurture 

If humans needed routine to survive we would not have evolved as a species. As much as we might want it to, the world doesn’t conform to a set routine. Every day is different and therefore circumstances and times differ. All over the world, there are children growing up in worn-torn countries and in families without the luxury of being able to impose a routine. 

If left to themselves, a baby will naturally develop their own routine of eating, sleeping and wakeful playtimes. This will change according to growth and development spurts.

 It takes around one year for a baby’s circadian rhythm to develop - this is the internal process which controls our sleep-wake cycle and is regulated by daylight. As this is still developing in the first year of life, no wonder babies naps are all over the place! 

By trying to change babies' natural rhythm and inclinations, to better fit in with our own lives, we are inadvertently implying they have ‘got it wrong’ and need ‘fixing’. That’s a damaging message to hear so early on in life. 

Five reasons why sticking to rigid routines isn’t good for you or your baby. 

1. An inflexible routine makes it harder to do fun things on the spur of the moment.  

The things you used to do, like visiting friends, going out to eat, shopping and generally having fun, become difficult to organise, as everything depends on when Baby needs to eat/sleep etc. This could have a negative effect on parents’ mental health and therefore Baby’s well-being.  

2. Sticking to a routine could mean Baby isn’t getting their needs met. 

Listening to your baby and going with what they want to do and when they want to do it, is much better for Baby's natural development. It says “I trust that you know your body best and I care for you enough to listen to what you need”. 

When Baby was in the womb, they came everywhere with you and were used to constant movement and noise. Quiet and stillness must be quite scary after a busy noisy womb! 

3. Lack of flexibility means babies are less exposed to new learning and development opportunities. 

Our brains need to have plenty of experiences to create new synapses and make connections, especially in our early development. By continuing our lives and taking our baby with us to different places and letting them nap when they choose to, we are allowing them to take in lots of experiences and become resilient to changing environments. 

4. Flexible routines create adaptable children

Being adaptable to your child’s needs and not following rigid routines can help to create more adaptable and resilient children and, in turn, adults. Being used to being taken with you and napping in their pushchairs or sling will make them much more adaptable to different environments in the future, than if they always need to be put down in a quiet room at home. 

What do you think? Do your children have a routine? What has your experience been of needing or not needing a routine? 

*I accept that these points may not be applicable to babies and children who are on the Autism Spectrum who may require a more set routine and additional considerations.