If you have an infant or toddler, chances are you’ve heard people talking about following an eat, play, sleep schedule. I’m breaking it down to let you know what that actually means, and how it can help your child’s sleep!
For at least the first whole year, it's important to encourage full feedings every 2-3.5 hours during the day. Of course this varies at times depending on your child's age, when they're healthy vs. sick, if they're going through a growth spurt, cluster feeding, etc... The key piece is that getting full feedings will help ensure that your baby is getting the daytime calories they need, and can help prevent them waking at night due to hunger. If your baby is getting nighttime feedings, and you're not sure whether to start night weaning - talk to your pediatrician first. They are the ones who monitor your baby's growth, weight, and progress can let you know when it's best.
To start your eat, play, sleep routine - when your child wakes up in the morning or from nap, you’ll feed them. Feeding when they wake instead of feeding immediately before bedtime or naps can help end the “feeding to sleep” association and is so helpful in teaching independent sleep. If they’re not hungry right away, you can wait 15-20 minutes and then try again.
After your baby is fed, you can get started on play time. Play is so important for physical and mental development. This can be time practicing milestones like rolling over and crawling, tummy time, reading, or even going to the playground. Play time is great for practicing new tricks, letting their little bodies burn off some energy, and helping tire them out for sleep! Note: You're going to want to skip the "play" piece for nighttime wakings.
Watching those wake windows and sleepy cues will let you know when your child is ready for rest. Set up some simple nap and bedtime routines to help prepare their bodies for sleep. Once you get a solid and consistent routine in place, you will not need to feed your baby to sleep each time you put them down for a nap or bedtime.
So why is having a routine like this important - and how does it help sleep? Having an eat, play, sleep schedule is your best bet in getting your baby to learn to fall asleep without using any "sleep props" or things that would have a sleep association, keeping baby from going to sleep on their own.
One of the best parts about having an eat, play, sleep routine is that it helps things become more predictable for your baby, and it's flexible for the parents. For example, newborns have short wake windows. They may only be awake for an hour or less. They can spend most of that time eating, and may only spend about 5 minutes in the "play" time before needing to go back to sleep. Some newborns are so sleepy that they skip out on the play phase altogether. Then, by the time your baby is about 6 months old, things will look much different. Their wake window is more like 2.5 hours. They're more efficient at eating, so it may only take 10-15 minutes to eat, and they can spend much longer in the "play" phase until needing to sleep again.
If your child isn’t used to an eat-play-sleep type of schedule, understand it can take a few days or more to get used to. This is especially true for babies under 6 months, who take naps more frequently!
Setting up a consistent schedule will help your child know what to predict and expect next. It can help build positive sleep associations, and helps you get them set up with a solid daily routine. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to follow some sort of firm itinerary every day! But, as with all other things sleep-related, consistency really pays off in the end!