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