When I was at uni I used to babysit for a couple, friends of mine, on the odd occasion that they decided to trust someone else with the care of their only child, a 2 year old boy. They started their family fairly late in life and it was a battle to bring their little one into the world, so understandably they were very protective of him. They didn't leave the house until he was well and truly asleep and phoned every hour to check in. During the day everything they did revolved around his routine. Eating and sleeping were all carefully timed and were always done at home. The child was very sensitive to any changes in the routine but I was never sure what came first; did his parents develop the routine because he was a sensitive child, or was the routine so carefully planned, and his parents so highly strung, that the child became dependent on every day being exactly the same?
I was barely out of my teens at the time so I had no concept of what it takes to develop and maintain a routine for a small child. All I saw were 2 previously easy-going people letting a child determine absolutely everything they did and how they did it. I simply could not understand it. When I fell pregnant I spoke to friends with kids about what they did each day. I was surprised to find so many different opinions and methods just in my small social circle. It seemed to be a very personal decision, with most people swearing by whatever it was that they did. I decided a routine wasn't for me. I didn't know what the alternatives were but I thought we'd figure it out.
I've probably mentioned this several times before but when J arrived we battled with breastfeeding. He was naturally a 3-hourly feeder but it would take an hour and a half to get through each feed. Sometimes he fell asleep afterwards, other times, he lay awake until the next feed, sometimes he'd just cry for an hour, it was different each time and utterly exhausting. He never napped well, and would be overtired by 5pm, sending our evenings into complete disarray. It didn't take long to work out that he needed decent naps during the day to get a good sleep at night - oh, the irony! After 8 weeks of this I decided that maybe a routine wasn't such a bad idea and I started doing some research. We tried EASY (eat, activity, sleep, you time), and it wasn't. Then we tried some of the Baby Whisperer's suggestions, which were very similar, but wholly dependent on having a compliant child, which ours wasn't. I wanted something that was based on what our child needed, and I realised that the only way to get that was to work it out myself.
We fed him by the clock and if he fell asleep during a feed, we didn't wake him. We bathed him at the same time each day and made sure he didn't nap after 5pm. It was hard work some days and we had some bad habits in place at times but suddenly at around 12 weeks J started sleeping through. We managed to muck that up when we went to Australia for a month, but we saw the light at the end of the tunnel and are always working towards that, even now. Over the last 6 months we kept working on it and perfecting the routine, and every time we thought we had it all figured out, everything changed again. For a few weeks there, J and I would get up together around 6, he'd have a feed and we'd curl up together in the big bed and nap for an hour or so in the morning. It didn't last long and I still miss those days! He kept growing and changing and as he did he needed less and less sleep. We went to 4 hourly feeds, then solids and 3 meals a day, and now finally we're down to 2 naps a day.
J is pretty flexible about when and where he sleeps during the day. If we're going out and he's tired, he'll nap in the car. As long as he has one long sleep in his cot every day he's happy. He does like to eat at the same time every day, which is fair enough, so do I. He's also pretty happy to eat on-the-go so that's flexible too. The only part of the day that I don't waiver on, ever, is bedtime. We have our nighttime routine so perfectly down pat, that I don't dare do anything to upset the balance. He has dinner, a bath, some dessert, a bottle, story-time and is in bed by 7.30pm at the latest. There was a time when I couldn't get him to go to bed for the night before 9pm so I am hanging on to this routine for dear life. I cherish my son and his company, but I love the time of day when he is in bed and I can sit quietly with my husband and not have to worry about anyone else. Our helper knows the routine and I know if I leave J with her, the evening will go down exactly as it would if I were here. But I have recently been faced with the dilemma of dinner invitations that include J as well. I find myself cringing at the thought of taking him out with us and disrupting the flow of our perfectly orchestrated bedtime ritual.
I haven't yet decided if one night is going to make a difference and throw off the whole week, or whether J will sleep regardless of where we are and what we're doing at his designated bedtime. It has been such a challenge to get to this point and it has always seemed like a fragile set up. I hear stories of children who don't go to sleep until 9, 10, even 11 o'clock at night and I'm terrified that that's just around the corner. I'm starting to realise that despite my earlier reservations about routines, we really need one; not for J's sake but mine.