If you were a very small person, how would you make sense of your days? How would you know what to expect when you open your eyes in the morning, or when you feel the pain of hunger? How would your body know to get excited when that big person (your dad) picks you up high, and to get quiet and relaxed when the sun goes down?
Babies need routines almost as much as they need love. When things happen in more or less the same order every day – waking, eating, bathing, playing, sleeping – young children can figure out what comes next. Knowing what comes next helps them to feel secure rather than surprised or threatened; it helps them adjust their body rhythms of waking/sleeping and hunger/fullness to the world around them; it gives them a structure in which to learn about the important people in their lives (daddy does this when I cry because my diaper is full; mommy does this when I sit on her lap at night). It helps small children to create little stories that give life meaning.
Routines don’t necessarily mean the same things need to happen at the same time everyday; they can be flexible, to a point. Our brains are designed to take in themes and variations. Small changes in routine – a different food at dinner, or a different story at bedtime – expand babies’ understanding. Babies thrive in the space between chaos and rigidity. We all do.
Think about routines in your own life. If you need your days tightly regimented (think of Mr. Banks, the father inMary Poppins) your baby might need you to loosen up a bit. Sometimes it makes sense to go outside in the middle of the night to look at the stars together. On the other hand, if you are someone who always follows the impulse of the moment, you might choose to build more structure into your days, to give your baby what she needs. Naptime and bedtime routines – with picture books and stories, of course! – are a good place to start.