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Monday, 27 August 2012

Baby Routines: Empowerment or Placebo?

Overwhelmingly, the advice given to me when I admitted struggling with the needs of my first baby was this: put her on a routine. This advice came from any and all angles; parents, friends, well-meaning strangers either with or without children of their own. 'Routine' is presented as the magic bullet – the holy grail – of 'fixing' parents suffering from the biological demands of their infants.

So what exactly is a baby routine, and what does it entail?

And why, when it is a concept so liberally prescribed and held in such high esteem, was I so determined that it was the wrong thing for my family?

The meaning of the word routine in itself is fairly simple:

n.  1. A prescribed, detailed course of action to be followed regularly; a standard procedure.
2. A set of customary and often mechanically performed procedures or activities.

Apply that to the care of a human infant, and you have a strategy to map out a predictable, day-to-day schedule: a standard operating procedure. In essence, applying a routine to daily parenthood allows parents to take the reins and control all aspects of the day: resulting in the reassurance of predictability, and relief from the confusion instilled by the all-hours needs of an infant.

In the vulnerable, sleep-deprived and hormonally driven early weeks of motherhood, the lusty cries and unpredictable, frequent suckling of our babies can seem overwhelming. We've rarely seen, at length, the normal behaviour of a human infant until we have our own. Pregnancy can be long and filled with medical fears. We might be suffering through recovery from a traumatic birth. Breastfeeding seems hard, but the pressure to get it 'right' is immense. What do we do?

Popular self-proclaimed baby 'experts' will tell parents:
"When following a routine, you will begin to distinguish between your baby’s hungry, tired or bored cries because when she starts to cry, you will be able to look at the routine and see what is due next. If your baby is due a feed, you will start to recognise that as the hungry cry. If your baby is due to have a sleep, you will learn that is the tired cry." – Tizzie Hall, 2010. Save Our Sleep Article: The Importance of A Routine.
Along with now being able to assign a 'type' to their infant's previously unrecognisable cries, suddenly, a parent is given the added bonus of a reliable set of times within which they can plan their daily activities. Previous fears about fitting naps or feeds around outings are shed, because the routine provides pre-ordained indicators of when these things should happen.

"The feedback I get from parents is that routines make their lives easier. For example, organising things such as doctor’s appointments becomes easier because you know what your baby will be doing at each stage of the day." – Tizzie Hall, 2010. Save Our Sleep Article: The Importance of A Routine.
The advocation of a routine is almost always synonymous with sleep training of some kind. Rather than allowing the human infant to have it's own daily biological metabolic rhythms, a routine instead allows parents full control. The insinuation here is that the hapless infant doesn't actually know what it needs, and the parent must enforce authority over that. Somehow, by controlling every moment of the baby's day, prolonged and self-directed sleep will result as a consequence.

Then, add a generalised, emotive, tantalising promise (based on no science whatsoever) and it suddenly feels like not only the answer we've been waiting for, but that it is of physical and emotional benefit to our child.

"My routines also help babies to feel safe and secure. Your baby will know that her needs are being met and she has no need to cry, resulting in a happy, contented baby." – Tizzie Hall, 2010. Save Our Sleep Article: The Importance of A Routine.
No wonder it sounds like the answer to an exhausted parent's prayers.

But my concern is this: when we enforce a routine on a baby, are we doing it for the benefit of the baby – or for the convenience of adult? And does the baby really need a dictated daily schedule? After all, if a monotonous schedule was so inherently needed by the baby, wouldn't they just naturally behave that way? Just as a healthy baby is driven instinctively to find the breast, to learn to roll, to learn to crawl and walk and speak: so too will a healthy baby be instinctively driven to eat, sleep, and explore the world when he or she needs to do so.

A common social catch cry states 'happy mother = happy baby'; and while indeed it's true that a baby responds to the positive mood of a parent, I would argue that a mother and her baby would be truly happier if they were freed to listen to their instincts, and enjoy the bliss of unconditional love, nurturance and oxytocin-producing contact, rather than following someone else's arbitrary guidelines because everyone else says so.

We human animals are creatures of habit. We do like ritual and routine. Comfort is drawn from doing certain things certain ways, at certain times of the day. We all have our own metabolical and behavioural idiosyncrasies: that is one of the amazingly wonderful things that make us human. We have different needs for food and sleep, and pleasure and work and play and rest. We manage our days around these needs and the simplicity of a daily rhythm is soothing to our chaos.

However, the importance of feeding according to a baby's need, or 'demand feeding' in the early months at least, cannot be overstated. A baby is born hard-wired to cue it's mother to feed, and will need to go to the breast frequently, and at his or her own pace, in order to stimulate mother's milk supply. I am yet to find a leading source of evidence-based breastfeeding information that advocates delaying or restricting or controlling breastfeeding duration or interval.

A newborn can be confusing; wakeful, sleepy, crying insatiably, and sucking insatiably. We fear that if we don't instill order now, our life may forever be dictated by this tiny little... well, dictator.

But what can be reassuring to remember is that a newborn has come from the womb. A mother's womb is an environment of constant nutrition, constant rocking and holding, and no circadian (day/night) pattern whatsoever. A newborn is dependent entirely on her mother for survival, and that survival includes the almost instant meeting of all of her bodily needs; at least until she grows old enough to move away, to learn to wait, and to follow the natural day/night rhythms of all other humans.

Just like any other human being – creatures of habit – all babies grow and eventually develop the cognitive ability to enjoy a more rhythmical, more structured day similar to that of the parents. Just as millions of babies have, for thousands of years. All over the world. We just have to have the confidence, and the patience, to wait for that to happen. That is one of the many challenges of parenting.

So whilst the idea of following a routine, following a minute-by-minute plan, can bring safety and appeal: is it really giving parents what they need? And of equal importance – is it giving the baby what he or she needs? Many parents following a routine report a more content, more settled baby – but is that baby truly more content, or is it simply explained that way by a more confident parent – a type of placebo effect? Or of more concern, is the baby truly content – or has learned not to cue its needs as they mostly go unheard?

I would argue that empowering a parent, a mother, a woman, to nurture her young according to the biology that drives her; that same biology that conceived, and nurtured within her womb, and birthed her baby, is fostering the highest level of confidence and empowerment. Because it is dependent on no one else.

When mothering instinctively, when being supported to listen to your baby until you feel confident, there are no 'what ifs' – it simply is. And parenting by instinct allows the full expression of beautiful, human uniqueness. To the rapidly-developing mind of a human baby, this demonstrates acceptance – unconditional acceptance – and tolerance, and empathy, and compassion, and love, and trust, and respect. All of these truly wonderful things are demonstrated to the infant before they even have the cognition to form the words to describe them.

With every timely response, the mother tells her infant: I love you for who you are. You can trust me, and you are worth it.

Babies, and their mothers and fathers, don't need arbitrary schedules and routines dictated by a book to guide them. They simply need reassurance and support; reminders that they know in their heart what to do, and that loving their baby can only lead to the greatest kind of security within them all.

Peace and love to you. xo


  1. I have four children under six. I have breastfed them all until they were more than two, and have tandem fed the two oldest and the two youngest. I am still feeding my baby now who is 10 months, and have just finished feeding my third little girl.

    Yet conversely, I followed the Contented Baby routine with each and every one of them since birth. I woke them from naps, fed them according to prescribed times and practiced some "crying down" when I put them drowsily to sleep, knowing that they were fully winded and ready for sleep.

    In your post you said:

    Babies, and their mothers and fathers, don't need arbitrary schedules and routines dictated by a book to guide them. They simply need reassurance and support; reminders that they know in their heart what to do, and that loving their baby can only lead to the greatest kind of security within them all.

    For me, a routine gave me exactly what you said - reassurance and support. I found that babies will just accept whatever the parents choose to do with them - they are very adaptable. As long whatever choice the parent makes is done with the health and happiness of the baby at the forefront of their mind. I haven't yet come across a routine that advocates leaving a baby to cry, or ignoring their cues. Many times people who have never practiced a routine, or fully read and understood one, make this mistaken assumption. I co-slept with all my babies until they were going a long spell in the night, when they were put to sleep in their cots. If they cried they were lifted; if they were tired and fretful and needed rocked or fed to sleep, then it happened. If the routine went out the window for any reason, I just gave up for that day and tried again the next.

    The routine gave me something to work TOWARDS and I think this is very important to recognise. It is not a prescribed "Your baby WILL do this" formula. In my experience, and for me, it helped me to better understand my baby's natural rhythms. It was advice by a former maternity nurse who had cared for thousands of babies in her career and I would consider her to have much more experience than me in this matter.

    Yes, all babies are individuals with individual needs. But there are certainly similarities in their sleep and feeding patterns, that can enable adults to have a certain amount of predictability and can give us a rough guideline for when they are likely to need something.

    What a routine did for me was lessen my fear by giving me some data. Just like you could never be expected to know how to drive a car the first time you sat in one, so did I not know what to do with my baby when I got him home! I know many many many women who have just been told to put the baby to the breast when he is fretful and so they end up giving up breastfeeding because they are sore, exhausted and fed up.

    In my experience that when someone offers advice, it is not because they want to change you: it's because they want to make things a little easier for you. All of us understand how hard it is to have a baby, and no one better than another mother. These days, I try to support and encourage all mothers to do what is best for them. If they like structure in their day, a routine will work for them. If they are not structured kind of people, then a baby led routine will probably make them happier.

    I have raised four beautiful, happy, contented little beings. I don't punish them or use any fear based control. My whole parenting ethos comes from a place of love and compassion. If parents have this at the forefront of their minds, then routine or no routine, makes no difference.

    Let's love and support each other through this difficult journey of motherhood.

    Thank you for letting me express my views on your post. I loved reading it.

    Kim x

  2. Thank you for sharing some of your parenting journey, Kim. :) xo

  3. I read Gina Ford and Tizzie Hall but had thrown any type of routine out the window by week 3. My daughter simply wanted to feed hourly and there is no way I could have stretched her out to the 3 hourly times both these authors suggested, though believe me for a couple of days I really did try and just felt like a failure when I gave in. As soon as I stopped listening to their advice which gave me the feeling that if I couldn't do it or "tough it out" then I was causing major feeding and sleeping issues with my child for life, I felt better and could just enjoy my baby. I think some kids will fit into these routines easily but most women I know who used them were also quite happy to let their child cry for 20 mins or so if it was a scheduled sleep time - the authors might not say they practice CIO but I assure you that many people who follow it end up doing just that thinking it is required.

    I also really didn't like Tizzie Hall's comments in her book that by breastfeeding your baby on demand that you are creating obesity issues for later on in life. Apparently feeding like this lets them control how much they eat and teaches them to eat for comfort. From all the studies I've read, babies that are demand fed and then not overfed solids are actually much better at understanding their appetites and less likely to be overweight as adults!

  4. I agree. If you attempt to tell your baby when to sleep and when to feed and its needs are different to what the "book" says, the inevitable result is a baby desperately crying out for what it needs and the mother ignoring (to some level) in order to follow the routine. (if you state you are not ignoring your baby you are not following the routine very well!) I know many mothers who feel it acceptable to feed a baby, consider its needs met and then leave it to scream until it falls asleep. I know babies that have vomited, hyperventilated and cried relentlessly having mothers following Gina Ford (has she children?) and Babywise routines. One mother I know left her daughter screaming every night from about 8pm. She believed you must never put them to bed asleep so for 6 months her tiny baby was put in its cot at 8pm and screamed itself to sleep. All alone, unresponded to in the dark. She is very proud of her resilence. I would not treat a dog like that. Sadly I know these routines work. They work very well. Why? Because the babies learn noone will come. They learn what is the point? They are psychological damaged!

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    1. Hi Anonymous, thanks so much for getting in touch. I'm not looking for guest writers at this point, but I appreciate you offer. All the very best. Kim xo