Q. I have an 8-week-old. Her eating and sleeping habits are all over the map, and everyone keeps telling me to "put her on a schedule." What does that mean and how do I do it?
A. Many parents feel exhausted and puzzled by their newborn's seemingly random sleeping, waking, eating, and pooping schedule. This unpredictability is normal. The first 3 to 4 months of a baby's life is a transition period, as infants learn to adapt to life outside the womb. Getting used to being awake during the day and sleeping at night takes time and help from you.
Babies are not usually capable of being on a fairly consistent schedule until they're 4 to 6 months old. So the first few months of your child's life is not the time to work on imposing a rigid routine. For newborns, it is best that naps and feedings are on demand.
Developing some caregiving routines around sleeping and eating will set the groundwork for establishing a schedule later on. For example, when you see that your baby is getting drowsy, you can sing her a lullaby, and then put her down to sleep. Over a period of time, the lullaby will become a cue for napping.
It's also a good idea to look for patterns in your child's behavior to help you develop routines. One mother, who was trying to get her 10-week-old to take two or three longer naps a day instead of six or seven catnaps, noticed that her child got very sleepy during feedings. So she decided to slowly adjust the feeding times to take place closer to when she wanted her baby to nap. She also started trying to keep her daughter awake a few minutes longer before each nap so that the baby would be awake for longer periods during the day, take longer and fewer naps, and sleep for longer stretches during the night.
To get into more of a routine for feedings (stretching out the time between feedings so they are longer and fewer) is similar to the plan described for sleep. Watch for patterns in her feeding; many babies adapt to a fairly regular feeding schedule on their own. If not, you can consider delaying a feeding for even just a few minutes when your baby is giving you signals that she's hungry. If you continue to do this at each feeding, she is likely to eat a little more each time and will be able to wait longer between meals.