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Ask any parent, and they'll tell you that one of the greatest challenges of bringing a new baby home is coping with exhaustion. Nothing is quite so tiring as those first few weeks of bathing, feeding, burping, soothing, then doing it all over again. Getting your baby settled into a predictable routine - a pattern for when they feed and sleep - can make all the difference.

Not for everyone
"Every mom and baby is different", says occupational therapist and co-author of "Baby Sense", Megan Faure, who emphasizes there is no "one size fits all" solution. "There are some mothers who are very laid-back, and don't enjoy the structure of a routine," she says - and that's absolutely fine. There are also more difficult babies, like those with reflux - who may battle with a routine.

But for others, a routine can be an excellent way of achieving predictability - knowing what your baby is going to need next, and when. This isn't only good for mom, but for baby too. "Having a set routine helps babies develop expectations of what is coming next," says Faure. "It helps them settle into the rhythm of daily life."

Jacqui Flint of "Baby Love" agrees. Her company specialises in routine and sleep guidance for new parents, and she believes an age-appropriate routine helps babies feel secure, knowing that their needs will be met. "It also gives parents some structure," she says, "allowing them to plan their lives and feel more confident and in control. They also feel more rested if baby is sleeping well, so they can function better as parent, spouse, friend or employee."

When to start
As every baby is different, every routine should differ. Some childcare experts advocate starting a fixed routine from day one - like writer Gina Ford, whose "Contented Little Baby Book" has been a popular example of a rigid routine.

But Faure disagrees with this approach, suggesting more time and flexibility is needed. She feels a routine shouldn't be implemented for the first few weeks, or it might interfere with the establishment of good feeding habits, and the mom's breast-milk supply. Faure recommends holding off until about six weeks.

What to do
It's all about getting to know your baby, says Faure. "Every baby has its own internal clock which dictates how long they can happily stay awake, before needing to sleep again. It is age-specific and changes as they grow - a newborn generally cannot stay awake happily for more than 60 minutes, while a one-year-old will manage three to four hours."

Every baby also has a different response to sensory stimuli in their environment. Some are more sensitive than others, and need a stricter routine to ensure they aren't left awake too long, absorbing too much information from their environment and becoming over-stimulated and unable to settle. Other babies are more relaxed and can take in more sensory information without becoming upset. These babies can have a more flexible routine.

The key thing, says Faure, is learning which signals to watch for. "About ten minutes before their awake-time is up, babies will start giving off specific body signals, from fussing and niggling to rubbing the eyes or ears, sucking the fist, or even hiccupping. These signals are your baby's way of telling you they are ready to be put down to sleep".

Once you've noticed these signals, take your baby to their sleep area and settle them into their cot. Draw the curtains, turn off the lights, and perhaps play some soothing music. Newborns can be swaddled or older babies put into a sleeping-bag. Give your baby their feed if it's feeding time, and if they fuss, pat them gently, but don't pick them up. "If you have read their signals correctly and in time, they should fall asleep with ease," says Faure.

Why daytime sleep?
Some parents believe a child who sleeps too much in the day, won't sleep at night. But daytimes sleeps are essential, says Flint. "The success of your baby's night is dependant on the success of your baby's daytime routine. A baby who doesn't sleep enough during the day and at night, is an unhappy baby who may not feed properly and meet his milestones."

The results
Following a flexible routine will help your baby get enough sleep during day and night, which in turn means their awake-time will be quality time for them to start interacting with the world and responding to stimuli. A contented, refreshed baby will also feed well, ensuring their full kilojoule intake is met and their growth remains on track. With both of you rested and refreshed, you can enjoy the parenting journey and spend quality time together, knowing your baby is thriving in a loving and predictable environment.

Written for Clicks Club magazine, April 2010 By Philippa Hudson

Clicks Club