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How Important is the Bedtime Routine, Really?

Sep17

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesDear Amalah,

My daughter is five and a half weeks old. After a rough start to breastfeeding, we finally got the hang of it and she finally made it over her birth weight, so our doctor gave me the go-ahead to stop waking her up at night to feed her. I was pleasantly surprised to find that if we fed her and put her down around 10:30 pm, she would sleep happily until 4:00 am. This is an awesome amount of sleep. However, our doctor also suggested establishing a bedtime for her now, and I know how important it is for babies to get enough sleep and how essential a bedtime routine is.

A week ago, we started trying to put her down between six and seven. Some days we’d get the timing right and she’d move from the boob to the bassinette without protest, and other days it took several tries and she probably didn’t fall asleep until 8:30. Regardless of when she fell asleep, she would wake up at 10:30 to eat, and then again at midnight, 1:30, 3:00, 4:15, 5:00, and 6:30. She’s not a fast eater, either, so as you can imagine none of us were getting much sleep.

Last night we finally caved and reverted to our old routine: cluster feeding/napping in my arms from 7:00 – 9:30, then snuggling with Daddy and getting another three ounces of formula (or breastmilk if I’ve managed to pump) right before bed at 10:30. She slept until 2:30 am, ate for an hour, and then slept again until 6:00 am. I feel like a much nicer person today!

So that was a ridiculous amount of preamble for what I hope is a relatively simple question: at what age should we try to establish The Bedtime? Will things get easier if we try again in a few weeks? I can tough it out now if I know it will get better soon, but there’s no point in making us all suffer if she’s just too young for a routine right now. Daytime napping is erratic – 20 minute naps all throughout one day, a 4-hour nap marathon the next.

Thanks for your help,
Really Really Tired

Oh my goodness, don’t you love it when doctors tell you to go obliterate a plan that’s working perfectly for all involved just because some expert out there decided what’s “supposed” to be best for everybody?

Yes, bedtime routines are important. Sleep is important — FOR MOM AND DAD TOO. At five-and-a-half weeks in, I would sooooo put you guys squarely in the “do whatever it takes” phase of newborn parenting. Seriously. She’s sooooo little. There is sooooo much time to worry about this later. You are not going to irrevocably damage her by going with what works for you guys, for right now. Table the whole earlier bedtime thing for later, and the next time your doctor asks you if you have a routine, say yes, because you DO. So what if she’s going to bed at 10:30? The whole cluster-feeding/daddy time/bottle routine still sounds like a routine to me.

It also sounds — if this will make you feel any better — EXACTLY what we were doing around that age. I remember Noah’s doctor pulling the ROUTINE! BEDTIME! SET SCHEDULE! freak out on me when he was six weeks old and I nodded and blinked at her, like, lady, you don’t even KNOW how little I care about this topic right now. We continued to let Noah set his feeding/sleeping schedule and didn’t ever really force a “set” bedtime until I went back to work at 12 weeks or so. Though by that point, it was pretty clear what his cues were and an 8 pm bedtime just…kind of happened, without any kind of big huge production of a “routine.”

Now Ezra WAS a baby who benefitted greatly from a bedtime routine — at FOUR MONTHS OLD. We were co-sleeping, which I know is not what you’re doing, but when you co-sleep you’re already technically breaking so many “rules” in favor of doing what works for you that it’s super easy to roll your eyes at doctors rambling on about trying to force an infant to sleep at 6 pm. For his first three months or so, bedtime was something like this: a couple hours of cluster-feeding from dinner on, the occasional topping off with a bottle around 10 pm, swaddling, dozing in the swing or bouncy seat until that first waking, at which point I’d bring him to bed with me and we’d conk out until 4 or 5 or whatever. It worked. I was tired, but not a zombie. It was a hell of a lot better than those awful hourly wakings you describe and I remember and would do ANYTHING ON EARTH to avoid.

Somewhere between three and four months, we decided to transition to the crib and started a bedtime routine of bath, book, boob, lullaby, then down to bed with a lovey by 8 pm or so. And it worked beautifully, just like you hear it’s supposed to.

But that’s the thing everybody should know: IT DOESN’T WORK FOR EVERY BABY. Some babies neeeeeeed the routine and some babies are indifferent to the routine and some work out their sleep on their own and some are craptastic sleepers for months and months and months no matter what you do. And if you end up with a baby like that, you continue with the mantra of “WHATEVER IT TAKES” for everybody to at least get the maximum amount of sleep possible, even if you have to break a few sacred “sleep rules” along the way. If it works for you, it works for you. As long as it doesn’t involve spiking the baby bottle with whiskey, don’t sweat it.

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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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32 Responses to “How Important is the Bedtime Routine, Really?”

  1. Jeannie Sep 17 at 11:41 am Reply Reply

    Both my babies (four, and four months) kind of established their own rhythm to their days / nights by three to four months. And we were lucky that both of them picked rhythms that were amenable to us — bedtimes between 7 and 9, waking between (most days) 6 and 8, with a few feedings here and there. I have to admit I’m definitely not a fan of scheduling babies, but that might well be because my experience with letting them get their own rhythm worked really well. But I have no doubt that being strict with a schedule would work with other babies.

    One other thing: the best advice I got as a new mom was from another mom who said the first 6-12 weeks of a baby’s life are survival mode, and you just do WHATEVER IT TAKES to make sure everyone (mom, dad, baby, other household members) is getting the most amount of sleep possible. Worry about a schedule after that, when their little brains are more mature. So kinda like what Amalah said above — baby is too little to worry about a schedule. And in my case, once those 12 weeks were over, the kids each had a reasonable rhythm to their days. 

    (One caveat I suppose is if you are heading back to work at 12 weeks or sooner, I would guess you’d need to be a little more careful about a schedule.)

  2. Isabel Kallman
    Isabel Sep 17 at 12:05 pm Reply Reply

    You’ll often find people calling the first three months of a newborn’s life “the fourth trimester.” It’s an adjustment period and a baby and mom are still adjusting to this new life.

    As Amalah and Jeannie said, those first three months are “do whatever it takes.”

    Every pediatrician or child development professional who specializes in healthy sleep habits whom I’ve ever spoken to has told me the same thing… only starting after month three or four should one even consider a routine.

    And, it’s like Amalah wrote, it’s about the sequence of the routine that’s important too.

  3. Karen Sep 17 at 12:28 pm Reply Reply

    Everything Jeannie said is right on (Amalah too). I had no idea doctors discussed bedtimes unless the parent initiated the subject? I was also concerned about a “bedtime” with my 5 week old lest, OMG, she become one of those.kids that went to bed at 9 on school nights (it was the PPD messing with my head I think). But we did the same thing you described with evening cluster feeding, then sleep from about 10 pm-4 am until she was nearly 6 months old. And we had terrible naps during that time: short, erratic, blah.blah. I thought I was doomed.
    Then, around 7.5 months, it was like a switch was thrown and she started a 7 pm bedtime on her own with great daytime naps. I think this doesn’t always happen, but if it does, sing praises to the Sleep God and count yourself lucky.

  4. Katie Sep 17 at 12:59 pm Reply Reply

    Hi! I’m just barely beyond where you are now, with a four month old. And at five weeks, I can guarantee that we were nowhere near a 7:00 pm bedtime. It’s kind of hazy, but I think around then, baby hung out with us either in our arms or his bouncy while we watched TV until 10:30ish. Then we’d top him off with one last feeding, and put him in the cradle next to our bed at the same time we went to sleep. He’d usually sleep until 2ish, at which point I’d feed him, and he and I would crash on the couch together until 6ish. It worked. Eventually, I started giving him a bath around 10ish. Around the 2 month mark, the bath moved to 9ish, followed by bottle, lullaby, and cradle. Eventually, that kept creeping earlier and earlier, until he’s at the 7:30ish bedtime we’re at today. Napping is still a crapshoot for us, but I’m hoping that it will progress in a similar way that bedtime did. He’s starting to give us a fairly consistent morning nap, and I’m sure the afternoon one will follow. Really, at this point, just do whatever works!

  5. Julie Sep 17 at 1:27 pm Reply Reply

    I do think that a bedtime routine is a useful thing – where a bedtime routine means that you do the same things in roughly the same order at roughly the same time every day, so that the baby knows what to expect. It doesn’t matter if it happens at 7pm or 11pm. And you do have a routine, so yay!

    I am also a strong believer in “whatever works” for at least the first three months. The first three months the baby is basically still a fetus in terms of her ability to comprehend the world. So you should be focusing on doing whatever it takes to get you and her as happy as possible as often as possible – if that means swing naps or falling asleep on your chest or whatever, go for it. Probably around 3 or 4 months you’ll notice she seems more alert and aware and kind of becomes a “real human” in some ways, and you can follow her cues about when to start shifting bedtime early, when to start doing the “boob or bottle, bath, book” routine, etc. At 5 weeks, all the routine she needs to know about is “if I cry, mommy or daddy picks me up”, and maybe a little bit of “Hmm, rocking with the lights dimmed and nursing makes me sleepy” thrown in, so that eventually you can use that to help settle her down on the days when she doesn’t want to sleep as much.

  6. NinaN Sep 17 at 1:29 pm Reply Reply

    Ha ha ha! I laugh at people who plan on creating a schedule for their newborns! HA! Let the newborn show you what THEIR schedule is and everyone will be much happier.
    I dread the coming weeks when I will have a newborn and two little girls who need to get on the school bus in the morning. Really hoping this baby takes it easy on his momma as she is so NOT a morning person to begin with ;)

  7. Julie Sep 17 at 1:30 pm Reply Reply

    Oh, and at your infant’s age, the bedtime routine is totally an infant led thing. So if SHE decides that the routine you’ve been using doesn’t work tonight and instead she wants to fall alseep earlier/later/in a different place, follow her lead. You just need to be aware that if YOU try to switch the routine, as you have seen, she might not like it, and be prepared to suffer the consequences. ;)

  8. S Sep 17 at 1:55 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with everyone else – your doctor is way off base. It’s too early to talk about schedules and routines and all that jazz. We started trying a routine around 10 weeks, with a combination of observing what seemed to be a good time for the baby to go to bed and what made sense for our own schedules. (Some of our friends put their babies to bed around 9-10; that was too late for us.) As far as the bedtime routine goes, be as consistent as you can, but also think about keeping the routine fairly simple. Short and sweet steps. Fewer steps are better than an intricate dance. (a) other people can more easily replicate it and (b) as your kid gets older and more crafty, she will try to expand the existing bedtime routine as much as possible.

    Good luck and sleep well!

  9. Corie Sep 17 at 1:58 pm Reply Reply

    Oh, the bedtime routine. I wish we could get into one again! My son is 15 weeks (10 weeks adjusted – he decided to come 5 weeks early). Somewhere around the 7 week mark he fell into his own routine of going to sleep between 9 and 9:30, and then sleeping until 3 or 3:30. And it was great! Wonderful, even! I usually didn’t make it to bed until 10:30 or 11, but I could usually still get about 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

    At 12 weeks I went back to work and he went to day care. The first two weeks were ok, but then we hit a dreaded combo of a growth spurt and a cold all at once right after he turned 3 months old. Suddenly he was waking every 2-3 hours and wanting to eat every time he woke up. I pump full time for him, so I started freaking out because I was barely producing enough milk to cover 1-2 extra bottles each day. It SUCKED. And we also got out of our nice little bedtime routine that we had established.

    The past two nights have been much better. He went down between 9 and 9:30, and slept until 2:30 or 3. We are also trying to get back into our old routine (clean diaper and pjs, swaddle, a bottle and a book or two in his room, and then into his crib starting between 8:30 and 9) which will hopefully help. I’m still looking forward to the day when he’ll sleep from 9 or earlier until I get him up to eat and get ready for day care at 5:30, but hopefully that day will come soon!

  10. Amy Sep 17 at 1:59 pm Reply Reply

    One of my most important guidelines as a parent has been “Only take parenting advice from people whose children you could happily live with.” Your doctor’s advice goes beyond the bounds of “medical advice” and into “parenting advice,” so, unless you’ve spent enough time with his children to know that they’re delightful little paragons of all that is good and virtuous, not to mention extremely well-rested, you can ignore it.

    When I established that little mantra for myself, the Greek chorus of (largely unsolicited) parenting advice calmed down to a much more manageable 3 or 4 people. Whenever someone said something that didn’t make logical parenting sense to me, I’d run it through the, “would I live happily with your kids?” filter, and if the answer was “NO!” I could happily and peacefully go forward, ignoring them entirely.

    In other words, when it comes to dosing schedules and growth and maturation and other medical stuff, listen to your doctor. But when it comes to parenting stuff, if what s/he’s telling you goes against your instincts, don’t listen.

    Do what works for now. Do whatever it takes so that everyone in your house is getting enough rest. My kids (at 5 and 3) go to bed at 7:30 or 8 pm, but it took us YEARS to get there.

    Also, there’s a 2-3-4 schedule that makes a lot of sense with the way babies naturally seem to go. From waking to the first nap is about 2 hours, then from the time they wake until their second nap is about 3, then from waking until bed is usually about 4 hours. My kids sort of naturally fell into that rhythm eventually, but not until they were several months old. It might be worth looking into, in terms of having a realistic goal.

    But right now, just be flexible and do what works, in all things.

  11. HereWeGoAJen Sep 17 at 2:05 pm Reply Reply

    My baby didn’t get a bedtime routine until she was something like seven months old. Then I figured out that she really benefited from having a whole day routine, as she is an orderly baby. Now she’s almost two and a lot more flexible. However, she’s always been a terrible sleeper, so it’s not like I know what I am talking about. But a routine did make her sleep better, but not until she was much older.

  12. Kim Sep 17 at 2:41 pm Reply Reply

    Wow…Amalah’s doctor probably would have called child services on me! We totally let my baby girl sleep whenever she wanted to for the first few months. My husband and I are night owls, so we were find with sitting up with her most of the night and then going to bed in the wee hours. Now she’s almost 6 months old, and she usually goes to bed with me around midnight, feeds off and on throughout the night, and is still sleeping when I leave for work in the morning. We both get plenty of sleep and she is such a happy baby. I often worry about the fact that we don’t have any kind of bedtime routine and that we all go to bed so late, but it’s working well for us!

  13. Susan Sep 17 at 2:45 pm Reply Reply

    I just want to second … um, everyone here. It’s all true. So, I’ll spare you my personal routine story in lieu of a story of how things can be later. At the point where you are, I was scared I’d never sleep again. Now, at 16 months, my kid sleeps from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. almost every night. You will sleep again. I promise.

  14. Delora Sep 17 at 3:09 pm Reply Reply

    7pm bedtime? That’s a weeeee optimistic. At about 10wks, we had an 11pm bedtime for our son (he’d do about 11pm-6am). That eventually moved up to 10pm at around 4 months. Now at 8 months, we’re just moving it up to 9pm. He’ll do 9pm-7am or so.

    And frankly? I don’t want to get up before 7am. Why on earth would I want to put the baby down at 7pm, to have him wake up at 5am. Insanity. (Besides, some nights I don’t even get home from work until 7pm – I’d never see him!)

  15. Mama Bub Sep 17 at 3:52 pm Reply Reply

    We have just (barely) emerged from the newborn stage. I can remember just weeks ago thinking that I would never get my baby to bed before ten pm and now, at three and a half months she goes down at 7. It just happens. Soon you’ll notice that that late bedtime doesn’t work and you’ll move it up. Until then, just ignore anyone who suggests that babies are one size fits all in anything, particularly sleep.

  16. Lisa M Sep 17 at 5:10 pm Reply Reply

    Don’t forget to lie your a$$ off to anyone who asks if the baby is sleeping through the night. If you answer with any kind of negative, you will get a truckoad of unasked for advice. Just sayin’.

    Also just for data points, I try to block out most of those early newborn days, but I do remember that both of my sons slept in a swing for the first 3-4 months of their lives. And my doctor was JUST FINE with that. Direct quote “the baby’s sleeping, and you’re sleeping? Sounds like a success story. Re-evaluate in a few months if nothing has changed.” And that was the end of it. I love her. :-)

  17. elizabeth Sep 17 at 9:48 pm Reply Reply

    my pediatrician said it doesn’t matter about the routine until about 3/4 months in which they start getting cued in by the fact it’s bathtime etc. he also said he didn’t care where or what time frame she went to bed as long as she was sleeping 12 hours with a feed somewhere in the middle still. my 5 month old still sleeps in our room, but sleeps from 10-10ish take the cue from your baby about what time is bed time and adjust accordingly

  18. new mama Sep 18 at 1:11 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you so much, Amy, for answering my question! I squealed when I saw it, literally, I was that excited. Thanks also for all the reassuring comments; it’s really helpful to hear the different bedtime experiences and that it will sort itself out just fine in a few months. I have been happily ignoring most of the unsolicited advice I’ve gotten since I started to show, but I gave this a little more weight because I love our doctor so much. He was tremendously helpful during our three weeks of breastfeeding hell, and a great cheerleader to boot, and he’s made several other good suggestions that fell more into the lifestyle category than the medical, so I generally trust his advice. His number one piece of advice has been to trust my instincts, soooo… I will chill out about bedtime and enjoy my four consecutive hours of sleep!

  19. Cara Sep 18 at 11:17 pm Reply Reply

    There’s actually parenting book advice for what Amalah said, too.  In Baby 411 the (pediatrician) author emphasizes the importance of all kinds of sleep training issues AFTER three months.  She says for the first three months the baby isn’t aware of her surroundings or able to self comfort and you ‘do whatever it takes’ and let the baby sleep wherever she’ll sleep. My child is only 2 1/2 months and the bedtime routine is developing naturally.  Oh, and its clear to me from watching the children in my life that kids have different circadian rhythms and sleep best at different times.  My girl is like yours – asleep around 9 pm, sleeps fairly well just waking to nurse and dropping right back off until around 8 am.  My friends child goes to sleep at 7 or 8, but is awake at 5:30. I like our schedule better!

  20. C Sep 19 at 2:13 am Reply Reply

    My 22 month old has never in her life gone to bed before 9pm.

    Ever.

    And she sleeps about 12 hours at night, which means I don’t have to wake up before 9 either. Personally, if I had a tot ready to go at 6am, I’d sell them on Ebay.

    Screw the doctors, if it works for you, then let it keep right on working. There is no LAW that the 10 or 12 hours of sleep at night be between 7 and 7….9-9 or 11-11 work well too (which for a while was our schedule).

    Does it work for her? Does she get enough sleep? Does it work for you? Then WHO CARES about the clock.

  21. Lizzie Sep 19 at 1:36 pm Reply Reply

    I’d just like to second that every baby is different and whatever works is what you go with. I have a 6 month old, and for us, a schedule is what works. Like, since she was 6 weeks old. To this day, the important thing is not the time, but the intervals. Same amount of time between naps, same feedings every day at relatively same time apart…and somewhere around 5 months that worked itself out to waking up around 6-7am and going to bed around 7-8pm. I learned very early on that my baby NEEEEEEDED routine. And when we deviate she is hungry, tired, doesn’t nap well, and super cranky. ALL DAY LONG. And we were doing this before she was 2 months old, because through trial and error, we figured out that schedule = super happy baby and sleep for all! :)

  22. Taryn b Sep 19 at 3:13 pm Reply Reply

    At 5 weeks, I would say anything goes. Especially bc it was working for you. I think up until 3 or 4 months I would cluster feed before bed, put to bed around 10 or 11 and then get a good chunk of time to sleep. I think it’s just too young to need a regular bedtime at a real bedtime time. Any routine where you’re sleeping is a great thing.

  23. Olivia Sep 20 at 10:40 am Reply Reply

    I don’t get the 7pm bedtime anyway. When exactly do working parents get to spend time with their children? My daughter is almost 1.5 yrs and our “routine” since she was born has been for her and I to go to bed about 9-9:30 (my husband stays up to do homework). She used to sleep until after I went to work, but now she is usually awake aroun 7:30. Combined with naps, she is well rested and I actually get to spend time with her in the evening.

  24. denise Sep 20 at 12:18 pm Reply Reply

    we never introduced a regular bedtime. when our son was a few weeks old he slept when he was tired and slept in the room we were in, we also co-slept, so he went to “bed” when we went to bed at about midnight. at about 4 months HE introduced a sleeping pattern and a year later he’s still on HIS schedule, which means he’s tired (and put to bed) at 8 o’clock on the dot :-) and sleeps for 12 hours.
    we’d never put a baby on a schedule, I think every child finds it’s own rhythm as long as parents pay attention what their kid’s needs are.

  25. Jen Sep 20 at 3:00 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you for this information! Even though I am not at the same stage, there have been so many times that I have second guessed the only thing that seems to work for my 19 month old because so many people say babies/toddlers need to go to bed early. If mine goes to bed at 7 or 8, he will be up at 4 ready to go for the day but when he stays up until about 10, he sleeps until 7:30 (and takes a grea tnap later). It has been a challenge to figure out what works for him but we are finally getting decent sleep! I think I need more than my son does though which can be a tricky balance. I married someone whose whole family is high energy so it only makes sense that my son would get those genes! haha

  26. Caitlyn Sep 21 at 10:35 am Reply Reply

    I don’t really understand why parents would want their baby to go down at six.  My baby goes to sleep at eleven, which is perfect for me to have an hour to myself before feeding her one more time and going to bed.  Then we both sleep as late as possible.  Working mothers have to move that all up a couple hours, of course, but six seems way early to me.

  27. Lisa Sep 21 at 3:51 pm Reply Reply

    @Olivia and @Caitlyn — My younger son went down at 7:00 every night from the time he slept through the night at 8 weeks. I worked outside the home, and I had to be up and out the door at 7:15 every morning, so yeah. To get his 12 hours in? That he needed? He went down at 7.

    We got home from work at 5:30. A quick dinner, bath, and a bottle, and he was asleep. Then we would eat our dinner, watch TV, etc.

    Different times work for different families.

  28. New mama Sep 21 at 9:24 pm Reply Reply

    I’ll be going back to work in another seven weeks (gulp), so yes, an earlier bedtime will eventually be essential if we’re ALL going to get enough sleep! I wish we could have a later schedule, but I also need that paycheck, so there you have it.

  29. stacy Sep 22 at 12:16 pm Reply Reply

    I didn’t bother with an early bedtime until about 8 months. Up to that point, she would have a late afternoon nap and then went to bed about 9-9:30pm. (It actually was great for us, since we could go out to eat at an “adult” hour without needing a babysitter or having an overtired and cranky kid who didn’t want to sit still…) After 8 months, I started making the bedtime about 10 minutes earlier each night until w got to 7:30. She started sleeping 12 hours pretty quickly.

    The only thing we’ve done consistently since about 6 months was the bedtime ROUTINE. I find that crucial to getting her to sleep!!! No matter where we are, the routine is exactly the same.

    best of luck. :-)

  30. bhn Sep 23 at 12:13 pm Reply Reply

    It sounds like you DO have a bedtime routine. It’s just a long one, and it doesn’t involve her going to bed early. Nothing wrong with that!

    I absolutely believe in the “fourth trimester” theory. You are not going to spoil her.

    That said, we did start a bath, boob, bed routine when our guy was about oh, 10 days old. But he didn’t always go down for the count right after the routine – he’d do the cluster feed/nap deal for a few hours.

  31. Marnie Sep 23 at 11:11 pm Reply Reply

    One thing I didn’t see mentioned here is how important that bedtime is for the PARENTS. Once we had a routine and a fairly consistent bedtime, I was pretty adamant about that bedtime. Mostly, I was selfishly guarding my own “me” time (or, “me and hubby” time). And I was Ok with that. Several years later, I’m still very dictatorial about bedtime, though I’ve lightened up on weekends.
    The routine itself played a huge part in successfully getting her to sleep when we traveled. She is and always has been a good traveler, and I credit that to the fact that for the longest time, no matter where we were, we followed the same routine of bath, story with boob/bottle/milk, then bed. Saved my sanity a few times, too!

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