How Rigid Should Your Baby’s Sleep Schedule Be?

How Rigid Should Your Baby's Sleep 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. 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 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. 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. I feel that they do not understand what it’s 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’s 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. Do make sure they are not awake too long before their next sleep time. 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.

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).

The bottom line:

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, 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 during nap time!

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

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Rigid or flexible – find a sleep schedule that works best for you and your baby! 

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