The Importance of Routine

February 1st, 2012 · 24 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

I was having drinks with a few local friends last year when one of them, the mother of a newborn (her first), leaned across the martinis and whispered to me “How come everyone says it goes so fast? I just find it to be the EXACT opposite.” Her face was awash in guilt as soon as she sent these words out there, and quickly hedged. “Oh my God! Is that a horrible thing to think? It’s not like I feel that way all the time.” I was shocked by the statement too — not because she was confessing to what every parent thinks at one point or another, especially during the particular points when the baby is not sleeping — but because she was asking me for advice. How was I suddenly the veteran with a third and fourth grader who had advice to dispense on parenting? What the…? Damn, that went fast!

I told her what I believe to be 100% true: Everything changes when the baby, and therefore the baby’s parents are sleeping. Until then, you can’t be expected to remember where you put your car keys, let alone think straight about the great cosmic meaning of children and happiness. Then I told her my theory about sleeping which I also believe to be 100% true, but might have a harder time backing up with, you know, JAMA studies: Every parent has to deal with one of three sleep handicaps:

  • Handicap 1: The baby/toddler will torture you for hours at bedtime before finally shutting his or her eyes.
  • Handicap 2: The baby/toddler wakes up in the middle of the night for long stretches, during which time you feel like the loneliest person on earth.
  • Handicap 3: The baby/toddler rises before the sun and you are forced to function before you’ve had a cup of coffee.

Each handicap carries its own particular set of tortures, but in my experience, it seems rare that a parent has to deal with two or three at once. (I can already hear the emails of dissent pinging in my inbox.) As we’ve mentioned several million times on this blog, our sleep handicap was always the morning. No matter what we did, for the longest time, we could not figure out a way to get Abby to sleep past 5:30. (How I dreamed of the sevens!) But then we’d go to a friend’s house for dinner and we’d all be eating dessert at 10:00 while their 3-year-old would dart in and of the bedroom every 15 minutes, burying his sleepy bedhead in mom’s lap, until finally his parents, through gritted teeth, would just give up and invite him to join us for a piece of pie.

Our first pediatrician told me that kids crave routines. I like to think this is a fact that one might even find in JAMA. I also like to think that we were so Draconian about our evening routine early on that this is what made it impossible for our daughters to suffer from handicap number 1. Even though we weren’t necessarily eating dinner with them when they were that little, we were always sitting with them. There was always some form of after-dinner event (as full-time working parents, this was the half hour when we attempted to cram in all the “quality time” we felt we missed during the day), then bath, bedtime story, and finally, lights out. On the weekends, we’d let them “watch a movie” (a 10-minute Pixar short; today it’s more like The Danish Poet*, above) because what’s the point of having a routine if you can’t break it every now and then?

As for how to solve handicaps 2 and 3? What do you think I’m some sort of veteran? How should I know?

*Which contains the immortal line: “Kaspar became living proof that some poets are better off happy than sad.”

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24 responses so far ↓

  • 1 eila // Feb 1, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Our family is thriving on routine right now. It used to be that I’d cobble dinner together early for our kids (and graze while I sat there with them…), and then I’d sit down for a second dinner with my husband when he got home. This year, I am pushing everyone’s dinner times into a middle ground: 6pm. My husband now has to start work earlier and aim to get home earlier (which he has the luxury of doing right now) and the kids now have to wait until quite a bit later– but the upside is that we sit down as a family. Truly, it’s a different vibe, and it’s working (http://fullplatecookinglessons.blogspot.com/2012/01/sohows-that-family-dinner-resolution.html). Not every day, but most days. Sure, some nights we stay up late, or go out to a late dinner, or a sitter let’s them run totally amuck, but the typical gig is: healthy snacks are out 4:30-6:00, dinner is a family affair from 6-6:30, then there’s a little playtime before a quick tub, and stories in bed at 7:00pm. I realize that work schedules may preclude many from this idyllic set-up, but thought it was worth sharing with those who have more flexibility in their day-to-day. Our family’s experience has been that it’s nice to have a “routine” to fall back on. It makes diverging from it exciting, and knowing it’s there comforting.

  • 2 eila // Feb 1, 2012 at 10:34 am

    oh, and here’s that original resolution that started this whole dinner/evening routine rolling: http://www.fullplatecookinglessons.blogspot.com/2012/01/2012-resolution-2-family-dinner-at-set.html

  • 3 Sara // Feb 1, 2012 at 11:23 am

    When my son was an infant and I was on leave, someone told me, “The days are so long, but the years are so short.” Makes perfect sense!

    Now, I have to work on that routine thing with my son, now almost 4…

  • 4 melyssa // Feb 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    I was going to say the same thing: the days are loooooooong, but the years are short.

    I think you’re onto something with your three theories. We had an early riser as well (6 a.m. on the dot without exception EVER) but we went to bed fairly dreamily. My sisters kids sleep in blissfully but they are up every fifteen minutes for five hours – eating my apple pie.

  • 5 Lori@ In My Kitchen, In My Life // Feb 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Gretchen Rubin says it best: “The days are long, but the years are short.” That’s the child-rearing years. I’m at the tail end of them, and it is oh-so-true.

    As for sleep and children, a great-grandma friend of mine who knows a thing or three about raising kids says, “The more they sleep, the more they sleep.” She’s talking about routine, friends.

  • 6 Danielle Downey // Feb 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you for making me laugh out loud today!
    That is ALWAYS a good thing.

  • 7 Mandy Edmund // Feb 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    I love your posts. I read them when I drink my coffee in the morning. So you are part of my routine!

  • 8 Maggie // Feb 1, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    I’m being tortured (lovingly speaking, of course) by a baby who just. won’t. go. to. sleep. It will be 12:30 am and he’s bright eyed and bushy tailed and I feel like leftover spaghetti and I’d do anything to make him sleep…. but unlike my first two, he doesn’t wake up DURING the night. Once I finally get him to dreamland, he stays, for a lovely 5-6 hour stretch. So I think your theory is right. I had a up for hours in the night first baby, an early riser (still is!) second, and now this. My only comfort is that it’s not something I’m doing “wrong”, they each have their own sleep personality. Looking forward to the cookbook, btw!

  • 9 Molly B. Jackson // Feb 1, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    We continue to suffer from handicap 3 (from both our 1yo and 3yo), though were daily tortured by handicap 1 until our oldest son was 2 (despite the construction of the most robust and solid routines we could conjure)… and have invited handicap 2 into our home for weeks during/after overseas trips… thanks for talking about sleep deprivation and it’s impact on the brain — for me, i have found sleep deprivation to dampen my experiences of joy, my ability to be present in the moment, and indeed my ability to savor those looooonnnng evenings and early mornings. I’m getting better at stopping and enjoying small things now, that I have a more peaceful (and well rested) head about me. What a huge gift, to be a parent!

    I also have more mental energy to enjoy your lovely blog – thank you for making fun moments in my every day.

  • 10 Alyssa // Feb 1, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    I think the “it goes so fast” comment always comes from someone whose children are grown or almost grown. My mother definitely suffers from selective memory, as she only recalls my brother and I being perfect angels who fell asleep easily all.the.time. Mine are 3 and 5, so I feel like I have a food in both worlds: I still remember the babyhoods and all that went with it, but I’m also getting wistful about school and crazy schedules, and how drastically our world will soon change.

    Sleeplessness is definitely a drag, and I will never understand those who can function on just a few hours sleep. I was a shell of myself during my babies’ first few months (OK, 10 months), and I honestly don’t look back too wistfully on those days. When I’m 60, though, I might. :)

  • 11 Beth // Feb 1, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    No, dear lady with a newborn, you are NOT a horrible parent! My theory of parenting is that the only horrible parents are the ones who think they’ve got it wired 24 hours a day, 365 days a year! Good parenting is rising to the challenge placed in front of you. For some people, infancy is hard, for some it is toddlerhood. I have heard some fairly horrific tales of middle schooldom, which is looming on my horizon. Hang in there, someday you will sleep again!!!

  • 12 Jolene // Feb 1, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    I think we have suffered from every sort of sleep problem there is with our daughter, from night terrors to waking up at 3am and playing for 2 hours. Everything we have tried, including a routine, has failed to work. She is two now and is so much better than when she was littler, but we still have very early wake up calls and she has such a hard time getting to sleep! We have to wear her down physically to where she just cannot keep her eyes open any longer. I long for the day that we will get more than 6 hours sleep at night!

  • 13 Rachel // Feb 1, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Here is the only parenting wisdom I ever share: All kids eventually sleep, give up the paci, learn to pee in the potty (not on the floor next to it), stop crying when you drop off at school etc… The only question is: how crazy will they make their parents in the process? The best thing about having more than one child is that you know, even when you are sitting in the hall with your itty bitty booklight for the 100th night in a row while baby boy tries to go to sleep “by himself”, that this too shall pass. Or at least that’s what I tell myself while clinging to the last thread of my sanity.

  • 14 Leslie // Feb 1, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    Give your friend a pointer to this recent Huff Post Parents column — it is dead on!
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glennon-melton/dont-carpe-diem_b_1206346.html

  • 15 Jessica@ Stay at Home-ista // Feb 1, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    It’s all about routine! We prioritize family dinner, which means that we eat at 5pm. All of us. My husband and I tired to hold our first off until 6pm, but by then she was sleeping. So we rearranged our schedules, and our priorities, so that we eat at 5, any baby is in bed at 6, and big kids (over 1 or 2) are in bed at 6:30. My husband can go back to work in his home office after the kids are asleep if needed. But that means we have early risers! Your theory is completely true in our home.

  • 16 654carroll // Feb 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    OK, i’ve now been misquoting/misattributing you for almost 2 years–because you told me (when a particular someone was sleeping 7 to 7 but howling for several hours a day instead of napping) that all babies have 1 of 3 problems–won’t go to bed at bed, gets up too early, refuses to nap. I took such comfort in that…and lo and behold, she finally started napping.

    as for the “It goes so fast”, someone else told me the individual days feel interminable, the years feel infinitesimal. Did you ever see the Sopranos episode where Vito ran away (after being seen in gay leather bar) and has to work a day of actual labor? And his interior monologue is all, “It’s gotta be almost lunch time. Man, I’m ready for my break…” and he looks at his watch and it’s 9:15am, and he started at 9am. That was me, every day of “maternity leave.” (I once called my husband to see how soon he was coming home and he hadn’t even gotten to work yet.)

  • 17 oilandgarlic // Feb 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    With one of our babies, we definitely suffered from #1 and #2 at the same time. He was difficult to put to bed but would wake up at least once in the middle of the night for feeding, and then it would usually take an hour for him to fall back asleep. It did get better after the 6 month mark but it really wasn’t til 9 months to a year that we had a consistent sleep schedule again (referring to the adults here!)

    I always thought that maternity leave should coincide with sleep and breastfeeding needs. You go back after 6 months to 1 year because by then you don’t “need” to breastfeed and you finally get to sleep!

  • 18 Nicole // Feb 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    What is so interesting is that Handicap #1 rears its ugly head yet again in later years, but reads like this: “Handicap 1: The teenager will torture you for hours at bedtime before finally coming home to shut his or her eyes.”

    And they wouldn’t see the sun rise if you paid them!

    The years do fly and I miss the toddler times!

  • 19 Carrie // Feb 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    In my sleepless desperation, some told me these wise words that I clung to: The days fly by, but the minutes are excrutiatingly long. I would argue that they are even more excrutiatingly long between the hours of 2 and 6 am (which was my handicap I guess). That is when I resorted to stashing Dove “Promises” behind the picture frames on the bookshelf next to the rocking chair in my daughter’s room. Even once she finally slept, I left a small hidden stash there as I wasn’t convinced my torture was over. I think it took me 6 months to realize we had finally transitioned to sleeping. I won’t share her age at that point, as it is too depressing to anyone in the middle of their sleep deprivation nightmare!

  • 20 Erin // Feb 2, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    We had all 3 handicaps with both girls and were downright rigid about the routine. Oh well. They are both champion 7-7 sleepers now. And I LOVE the Danish Poet, but my favorite is My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts. Have you seen that one?

  • 21 Nancy @Rivertree kitchen // Feb 3, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    If the routine works for you, you have my congratulations. We had a dinner at 6/playtime/bath/read/sleep routine, but our son still could not fall asleep on his own. Against my will, we tried Ferberizing (which I still think of as child torture). Didn’t work. Our pediatrician said that it’s common to have a kid who worries about sleeping alone, and the less we stress over it the faster it would go away. My husband (great dad and hubby otherwise) had a harder time but eventually our son started sleeping well. He’s a teen now, and like most teens, values sleep very highly.
    My motto: do what works to keep the family peace, don’t stress, and have faith in a happy future.

  • 22 Robin // Feb 4, 2012 at 1:43 am

    Babyhood and childhood did fly by quickly ( in retrospect), and I certainly do look back nostalgically on those early days now.

    But I still shudder thinking about the sleep deprivation suffered in the first year. Allysa said she was a “shell of herself” and I definitely felt that. Being 60-something myself now, I’m here to tell you Allysa, that you will NEVER feel wistful about those tortured sleepless nights and the foggy, exhausting days that followed.

  • 23 A Life From Scratch // Feb 5, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Routine IS so important and we started it day 1 with our son. Now, he is almost 6, and we have our second on the way. I’m hoping this baby to be craves routine as much as my son did! Fingers crossed. Soon I might be posting on your site at 3AM…with spelling errors, of course.

  • 24 Robin // Feb 5, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Forgot to say that the nightly routine back then (especially once there was sleep going on), was like a security blanket for me. There was a plan. A comfort in knowing what was going to happen and when. It reduced my anxiety. Just imagine what it did for the baby!

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