How Rigid Should Your Baby’s Sleep Schedule Be?

How Rigid Should Your Baby's Schedule Be

It’s inevitable. You have a baby and almost everyone around you will have advice about how to raise him or her. Some are nice about it trying to offer helpful tips while others criticize you and warn you what a big mistake you’re making when you do x, y, or z. I believe most people are trying to help (call me an optimist), but most people are telling you what worked for them and their baby. If you’ve read The Baby Sleep Site® at all, you know that our philosophy is that all babies are indeed unique and so will their sleep needs. A client this week was telling me how her first was a horrible sleeper and now at 6 years old still has issues, her second was a dream sleeper, and now her third is a challenge like the first and we are working together to make sure she doesn’t repeat the 6 years of sleep deprivation again. Even within the same family, babies are just different!

A former client wrote to me about a month ago asking me to discuss the importance of a rigid schedule for spirited babies. Here’s her e-mail:

Hi Nicole,

A few months ago you helped with my daughter and her sleep problems. Things have gotten much better since then, thank you for all of your help! Since I last contacted you, I have stuck to a pretty rigid schedule with my daughter because if I do not, we are up all night and I feel that we are starting from square one. So, I have found that it is best that I sacrifice some flexibility in other areas of my life for the “schedule” so I know that I will be getting somewhat of a full night of sleep and right now I am ok with this. However, I have been getting some criticism from friends and family about my lack of flexibility, but I feel that they do not understand what it is like to have a “spirited” child. So, I wanted to know if you would be at all willing to have a discussion about the challenges of a baby that does not sleep and how important it is to remain on a schedule for these babies. Thank you!

Does this sound familiar? No matter if you have a flexible schedule or a rigid sleep schedule for your baby, there will be those who believe you are making a mistake doing either one. There are benefits to both, but both will not work for all babies.

Benefits of a Rigid Baby Sleep Schedule

The main benefit of a rigid baby sleep schedule is the fact that it’s predictable. This isn’t just good for you to plan play dates or errands, but your baby will know what to expect every day, too. By prioritizing your baby’s sleep and making sure she’s in her crib at nap time and bedtime will make it that much more likely that she will sleep through the night and ensure your baby naps longer. You are making sure that you are putting her down during her “sleep windows” and helping “set” her internal clock.

Benefits of a Flexible Baby Sleep Schedule

But, what if your baby doesn’t get sleepy at the same times every day? Or, what if your family life is such that your day simply is not very similar day to day? A flexible baby sleep schedule allows you to have much more flexibility in your day. Your play date wants to meet at 10 instead of 11? No problem. That baby swim class is at 1 p.m. twice a week right when your baby’s nap is. No problem. Grandma and grandpa come to visit for two hours making bedtime an hour later? No problem. Having a flexible sleep schedule is definitely appealing in many ways. It feels much less like your whole world revolves around your baby’s sleep and schedule, that’s for sure.

But, is a rigid or flexible sleep schedule right for your baby?

Unfortunately, what’s convenient for us isn’t what works for our baby. As I discussed in my article about schedules for breast-feeding and formula-feeding babies, your personality will likely gravitate you towards one or the other. Your baby will make it a success or a failure. And, sometimes maybe it’s somewhere in between leading to some good days and some bad days.

For highly inconsistent babies, it is usually best to keep a rigid sleep schedule from a sleep perspective (not necessarily feeding schedule), because it helps “set” their internal clock and biological rhythms. If you allow your inconsistent baby to drive the schedule, he is more likely to continue being even more inconsistent than what’s “normal” for him.

For babies who are very sensitive to becoming over-tired leading to less and less sleep, it’s important to keep their sleep at a high priority. It doesn’t necessarily mean keeping a rigid schedule by the clock, but in terms of making sure they are not awake too long before sleep. It means that swim class might have to wait until they’ve changed their schedule.

For babies who can sometimes stay up longer and other times can’t, having a rigid schedule where they are in the crib when they are not tired, could lead to other sleep problems and frustration for your baby. Maybe he needs a more flexible schedule that is driven more by his sleep needs and cues.

The bottom line is that YOU will need to deal with the aftermath, if any, of any decision about scheduling. Everyone else who has an opinion doesn’t have to deal with a cranky baby or get up with your baby at night, YOU do. When it came to my highly inconsistent, supremely over-sensitive to being over-tired son (and still is, but not AS much), I simply could not afford to let too many things disrupt his schedule or routine (especially since he did NOT sleep “on the go” AT ALL after he was a month old!). At minimum, it would set us off course for a week or so with night-wakings and lots of crankiness. I tried it a couple of times and, to me, it just wasn’t worth it. For others, maybe it would be. With my second son, I finally saw how on Earth people had more flexible schedules and could (gasp!) be out of the house sometimes during nap time!

Whether you have a rigid baby sleep schedule or a flexible one will be a personal decision based on your personality, your baby’s personality, and what sleep problems it may or may not bring. Any “event” had to be “worth” the stress for us with our first baby. This meant we missed several family picnics or what-not (which I’m sure we were criticized for), unfortunately, but I knew it would be a relatively short time in our lives. He transitioned to one nap around 12 months and things were sooo much easier with just one nap (which we were 99.9% home for).

So, I can’t answer for you whether a rigid sleep schedule or a flexible sleep schedule might be right for YOU, but I can tell you that I believe you need to do what’s best for your BABY, even if others criticize you or not understand. They grow up so fast and I promise that more than likely, before you know it, you’ll WISH you had some down time with naps at home. 🙂

If you’re looking for ways to get your baby or toddler into a healthy sleeping routine during the day, whether it’s rigid or flexible, I encourage you to download our FREE guide, 7 Common Napping Mistakes, or explore Mastering Naps and Schedules, a comprehensive guide to napping routines, nap transitions, and all the other important “how-tos” of good baby sleep. With over 40 sample sleep schedules and planning worksheets, Mastering Naps and Schedules is a hands-on tool ideal for any parenting style. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep. Using the same unique approach and practical tools for success, this e-book helps you and your baby sleep through the night. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan® you can feel good about!

Did/does a rigid or flexible sleep schedule work best for you and your baby? And, do you get criticized for it?

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23 thoughts on “How Rigid Should Your Baby’s Sleep Schedule Be?”

  1. Doing the same thing every day may be boring to grown-ups, but for toddlers predictable routines lower stress, increase confidence and even make them feel smarter.

    Routines give little children a sense of security, a feeling of being smart and a sense of time. And they’re important for toddlers at every stage! I want to suggest you one of the best child specialist in India. Dr. Dinesh Singhal is the best child vaccination in Delhi

  2. @ Mahua Mandal- I work from home too, and do find that i feel a bit lonely or “out of touch” because of my 15 month old who NEEDS consistent and rigid schedules. I try to get out when I know he will not fall asleep in the car, in between naps, and in between work. On those days that travel or outings during naptime is inevitable, will put him to bed a little earlier to make up for a short nap in the car.

    @ Whitney- Thanks for sharing, and I have dealt with the same thing with my family! 4th of July warranted many comments from party goers scoffing at us leaving the party at 7:30, but even 30 minutes past bedtime means my little one will not sleep easily!

    @ Kathy- At least the comments are unvoiced in your circle! 🙂
    Yoe are obviously NOT alone in needing to stick to schedules, and in the end i think it pays off for all of us!!!

  3. These comments were great to read. My 2 1/2 year-old son is on a fairly fixed sleep schedule (although bedtime has been getting later and later the past 2-3 weeks) and I KNOW that there have been unvoiced thoughts from people (friends, family, co-workers) about how rigid I am with it, but he is just a nightmare if he gets overtired. However, it works. He sleeps through the night and has yet to skip a nap (it’s coming soon, I’m sure of it) while many of my friends who are far more flexible about sleep are still up at night and/or wondering if their two-year-olds are already dropping their naps. I was also recently at a party when two kids (4-6) arrived after my son left to go home and sleep. They were totally spun-up and so tired they were falling over themselves. On a few special occasions I’ve let him stay up late (or hoped that he’d fall asleep in the car), however, I have yet to find one that warrants the pain that is inflicted on us the next day, so more and more often, we just leave early. It’s only a few more years (unless we decide to go for number 2).

  4. Ugh, I just got back from a vacation with my in-laws, and this is one of my big battles! They are of the philosophy that children should not change their parents’ schedules or lifestyle. They take out young children and keep them up until their heads fall with tiredness. I’m talking about starting dinner at 8:15 pm, 2.5 year olds up until 1 am on a regular basis. The 2.5 year old was a wreck much of the time, clearly tired and constantly crying. Our 3.5 year old is in the process of dropping naps and fighting sleep. He is inconsistent and when in this kind of environment, gets less and less sleep. We were more lax on this vacation this time around so that he could enjoy his cousins (he rarely has time with them). His behavior suffered incredibly, and he is an overtired mess! I can’t wait to get him back to a schedule. Dropping from 1 to 0 naps is rough, though!!

    I know I am criticized by this family for being “rigid” as I never made it to the dinner because I was in the room with my sleeping child/ren (the 9 month old down by 7:30 each night). I am still rigid with my 9 month old, which means sleeping in a quiet, dark room for naps, usually about 2 hours after he wakes up, but watching tired signs. The trip involved two travel days where he had to nap on the go, and it was pretty disastrous! However, he does quite well sleeping in an ergo carrier with a nursing cover over the top to block out light and the white noise application on my iphone blasting in his ears!

    In their case, it’s not only the parents who have to deal with the consequences of the lack of napping or having any sort of consistent sleep time. Everyone around the crying child also has to deal with it (oh, did I mention they are also of the philosophy of ignoring crying children?)!

    Anyway, thanks for this post.

    • Whitney- what you are doing is completely right. You are the parent and you are the one loosing sleep and your hair over cranky children that won’t sleep and cry if they are overtired. If I were you I would choose not to fight the battle at all since my sanity and the well being of my children trumps everything else and I would not travel with the in-laws. Reality is harsh but parenting is harder. What your in-laws think-that’s their problem. Do what’s best for you and your kids. Bravo mama.

  5. I am also fairly rigid with my 11 month old – not that he has to go down at the exact same time for his two naps and at bedtime every single day, but he needs to get down for them within a small window of time (generally 15 minutes). He really cannot miss even one nap – he starts screaming and crying and is a real mess. I am that Mom who misses numerous get-togethers and turns down many invitations. At this point I’ve stopped trying to explain, “Well, if he misses his nap, the rest of the day is shot, and then I’ll be up a lot in the night. No, he won’t sleep at the party. No, if he does fall asleep in the car (IF) it’s actually worse because he’ll wake up as soon as we get home (or before) and won’t fall back asleep, but also won’t be refreshed….” and on and on. I would love to hear from other work-at-home Moms (including Nicole) who are in the same boat regarding having to stay home for all (or the majority of) naps – what do you go to get out of the house a little bit? I find that after weeks of being really dedicated to my son’s sleep schedule (b/c he needs it, but also b/c – in the end – it’s easier on the whole family) I start getting stir-crazy and sluggish (and a bit depressed). Any tips on saving your sanity? My son *finally* got on a schedule of 3 naps at 7 months and transitioned to 2 naps at 9 1/2 months – so I’d be surprised if he transitions to 1 nap any time soon!

  6. My 4 year old has been on a rigid schedule since he was 6 months old (with adaptations along the way). If we did not follow the schedule then he was more likely to wake up in the middle of the night for 2-3 hours at one time or to wake up before 5 am. We are now trying to figure out a schedule for our 7 month old son and so far he has the early bedtime of 7 pm (starting the routine by 6:15 pm). I come from a large family (6 siblings) and all of them cannot believe how rigid we are – even the ones with children. I can often tell that their children are overtired with unnecessary tantrums etc. and yet our boys are very content. They don’t seem to get it and the family often joke that all the family events are based on our boys schedules. Our family get togethers used to be dinner at 7, but since our first son came along dinner is at 5 so we can be out of there by 6:30 at the latest. I have to admit that I am very tired of hearing the comments from both sides of the family but I would rather have a well rested and well behaved child then stick around to hear their children burn out and the parents start to loose patience.

  7. @Renae: It was basically trial and error. My daughter was 8-9 months old before I had figured out what times she tended to get tired and just started putting her down at about those same times. It was a fight initially but eventually she actually started napping when put down without too much of a fight. The tough part is just when we got it figured out, she got older and her napping habits changed. Even though we are on a “rigid” schedule, she doesn’t always nap at the same times still and we still have to cancel plans because of her being tired and melting down.

  8. @Renae: I have NO idea! All I wanted was for the child to sleep longer than 20 minutes at a time and he fell into this. But to get him to do that I had to get him to fall asleep during the day without nursing him. that meant some tears for a few days and a very strungout mommy but then he just fell into a routine (it’s not by the clock, it’s based on wake up time. So when he wakes up in the morning, I know what time he’ll be napping and can plan my day. it’s a 30 min-45 min swing)
    and can I just say–those are the worst tired signs ever!! it should be against baby-law to do that to a parent!! 🙂 good luck

  9. Ohh I would LOVE love LOVE to have my 8 month old on a rigid schedule, it would make appointments and visits so much easier, I am tired of cancelling things because my little man needs to nap. He has two naps a day and I have tried and tried to get him into a schedule but he is the type of baby that if I put him down even 15 mins late then he becomes overtired quickly and will only do a 20-30min cat nap before waking up even more tired. So to try and get him into a schedule I was keeping him awake till the next scheduled nap but this meant that the second sleep was also a little catnap. After days of this I end up with a very overtired and wired baby in my house. So for me I just have to go with what he wants which means I spend all day trying to workout tired signs (which by the way are smiling, laughing and babbling loudly…very hard for me to determine). This morning he was only up for an hour and a half before going down for his first nap! So tell me friends on a rigid schedule…how on earth did you do it?

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