I received a request for a post about baby scheduling, or rather the nuances between attachment parenting approaches and baby scheduling approaches. This can be a surprisingly hot-button issue and the theory behind it can get a little complicated, so to start I want to lay out some basic premises.
First of all, there is no one right way to go about everything. No one book or parenting approach is going to make complete sense to anyone person. You have to find what works for your family and that is almost always going to be a mix of different approaches and strategies. The problems occur when people approach different books and tool sets like some sort of religious text that cannot be deviated from-- that's not likely to work for anyone.
So, the two approaches that I was specifically asked about were attachment parenting and Babywise in terms of scheduling infants. These aren't exactly comparable because attachment parenting is a very broad philosophy of child rearing (though for whatever reason people like to focus on specific tools) while Babywise is a specific book. For the purpose of this post, I will compare the attachment approach with an equally broad approach I'll call "scheduling" that I will explain later. However, I feel like the specifics of Babywise need to be briefly addressed.
Now, as I said above, most people aren't going to follow everything single thing in a single book. I'm sure there are people out there who have read Babywise and even used parts of it and would still consider themselves attachment parents. And I know for a fact that there tons of people willing to avow that they followed Babywise and it saved their life, or marriage, or whatever and their kid turned out "fine". But I will never be able to recommend Babywise to anyone and in fact can only advise against it on the basis that it has been linked to some very problematic outcomes in infants. Specifically, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in 1998 stating concern because Babywise was associated with "reports of dehydration, slow growth and development, and failure to thrive." That PSA aside, let's dive right in to different approaches to infant scheduling.
The first thing to keep in mind is that there is a big difference between schedules and routines. Routines are simply doing things in a specific order. I wake up, I feed the dog, I pump, I get ready, I eat breakfast, I feed Perrin, he takes a nap...etc. It doesn't really matter what time I wake up, my morning routine looks pretty much the same. Routines are pliable and can be adjusted or tweaked depending on a given situation. Schedules on the other hand are much more rigid. I wake up at 7:15. I have to be at work by 9:00 a.m. Dinner is served promptly at 6:00. Now of course there are some things, like the job example, that must operate on a schedule. But the distinction is important to note for the rest of this post.
We'll start with the attachment/evolutionary/anthropological approach. Whatever you call it (I prefer anthropological parenting), the basic premise is that children thrive best when their needs are responded to and met in a developmentally appropriate way in order to foster a secure connection between the care giver and child. That connection becomes the foundation for their relationship with themselves and others and therefore a healthy attachment leads to a healthy well-rounded individual. The key things to keep in mind for our current discussion are 1) meeting needs and 2) developmental appropriateness.
There is definitely lots of gray area between attachment parenting and other approaches and often some overlap. Attachment parenting and scheduling aren't mutually exclusive. However, for arguments sake I'm going to define "scheduling" as approaches that minimize flexibility and focus only on the physical (think eat, sleep, poop) needs of infants. There is also a common trend among these approaches to describe infants in behavioralist terms.
Although not entirely accurate, it may be helpful to think of these two approaches as ends on a spectrum with one extreme being a completely baby-led approach where you rely on the babies own cues all of the time and the other extreme being a rigid schedule that you never deviate from. Neither of these extremes is likely to be optimal. You need to find a balance that works for you. When making this decision, there are a few things to keep in mind. Namely, we need to start off having realistic expectations. It has been my experience that often times parents who struggle the most with infant behaviors aren't really dealing with anything that different from anyone else. The issue is usually that they went into parenting with very unrealistic expectations of how infants behave and what "normal" looks like.
Babies are not adults. Mindblowing, right? But seriously...stop and think about this for a moment. There are some things that are just not going to be developmentally appropriate for an infant.
Babies can't tell time. Schedules are never going to be appropriate for infants because babies can't read clocks. It is that simple. Expecting a baby to do the same thing at the same time everyday isn't going to work out for anyone. When it comes to "time", babies suck even worse because their circadian rhythms aren't developed yet. It takes a while for them to get in sync with the day/night cycle and to learn to pace their environmental cues with the time of day.
Babies sleep cycles are much shorter than adults (about half as short). That means they have twice as many light sleep stages, or twice as many opportunities for night waking. While this may be inconvenient for us it is very, very convenient for baby. Waking often helps make sure the brain is staying alert enough to keep regulating things like body temperature, heart rate, and breathing protecting the baby against SIDS. It also gives them the opportunity to eat more frequently, keeping their blood sugar stable, ensuring a good milk supply, and keeping up their caloric intake.
Babies don't have "wants". Babies wants and needs are the same, and they are not just physical. Infants need touch and human contact to develop properly and thrive. They need emotional comfort. An infant is not cognitively developed enough to "manipulate" a caregiver. If they want something, it's because they need it, not because they are trying to scam you.
Babies can't talk. Babies have certain cues to let you know when they are getting hungry or sleepy (rooting, yawning, etc.) and at the end of the day, crying is a babies number one communication tool.
Babies don't have object permanence. If they aren't looking directly at something, they are not aware of its existence. They have no concept that you are just in the other room. If you aren't there, for all they know they are completely alone.
Babies don't understand delayed gratification. They can't tell you in advance when they need something. If they have a need, it is immediate. Delaying response to that need isn't "teaching" them anything. On a physiological level, their cues (such as crying) may wane over time as they fail to elicit an appropriate response. But there is no cognitive learning taking place.
Babies change. As an adult, it's easy to get used to a status quo. We get to wear the same clothes for years without buying new sizes. We like the same things. We have the same abilities. Not a whole lot changes. Babies are constantly changing. Growing, teething, developing motor skills, language...it never ends. Expecting a baby to act the same today as he did a month ago is only ever going to end in disappointment. There is always something new happening and that can easily throw a wrench in even the most entrenched patterns of behavior. And these changes aren't always linear. Regressions in eating and sleeping habits are common.
So knowing these things, it's easy to see how expecting much in the way of schedules in unlikely to work out for baby. But babies don't exist in a vacuum. They have families and other family members have to get shit done sometimes. I get that. This is where finding balance comes in. However, that balance will work out for everyone the best when we keep our expectations reasonable. This is one reason why routines may be a good compromise. Getting a good routine down will ensure that you know how to accomplish X tasks in Y amount of time. Then, you can start, stop, and pause your routine as needed when other non-flexible needs get in the way. You know baby likes to wake up, poop, then eat and you know you have to be at work at 9. Maybe that means most days you both wake up at 6. Let baby play while you get ready, change his diaper and feed him, then take him to daycare at 8:30. But what if one day he doesn't wake up at 6? Maybe this means you go ahead and get ready without him. At 7:30 he wakes up, but you are already done getting ready so you go ahead and drive to day care, giving him the ride to wake up and do his business, then feed him at daycare before heading to work. See? You can maintain the routine and still keep somethings scheduled while including enough flexibility that you don't have to wake a sleeping baby and have a cranky monster pants on your hands later that day. Now are there going to be sometimes you have to wake a sleeping baby or miss a nap? Of course. But what is important is that needs are getting met.
What is worrisome is when we start saying that certain needs aren't as important. Just because a baby is fed and diapered doesn't mean he doesn't need something. He may have some emotional needs. And those needs may occur at inopportune moments. Babies don't know that adults like to sleep for 8 uninterrupted hours every night or that your favorite sitcom comes on at 8:30. So knowing what we know about babies' needs and what is appropriate behavior, what is a parent to do when trying to balance baby and the rest of their life?
As I said before, this is incredibly situational. You have to find what works for you. That being said, I think one thing that everyone should keep in mind is the "golden rule"- treat your baby how you would want to be treated. I don't know about you, but I'm not one of those people who can just fall asleep anywhere. I need it to be dark and quiet, and if I'm not tired it's just not going to happen. I don't like to eat when I'm not hungry and if I am hungry I don't particularly like to put off eating. Some nights I wake up and can't sleep or feel like getting a snack. And sometimes I just have a bad day. I'm in a bad mood and I don't know why or I just feel sad. I can't imagine coming home and telling Joey that I feel sad and just need a hug or some cuddle time, only to have him ignore me. Or to have him tell me that since I'm not hungry I'm "fine". Or to have him tell me that he doesn't have to deal with me between 8 pm and 6 am so I need to learn how to comfort myself. And this is me- a grown adult who has fully functioning cognitive abilities. I know that Joey is still there for me even when he isn't in the room. When someone tells me it's still an hour until dinner, I have a concept of how long that is and I know that food is coming eventually. I can communicate my needs directly and I can move and meet them on my own if I need to.
I know that for a lot of people this sounds nice in theory, but may be harder to implement. However, in these situations it is important to understand that it is not the baby that is the problem. The baby is doing what it is designed to do- what babies have been doing for centuries. It is our society that has changed and made the equation unbalanced. In a culture with incredibly weak community ties, small nuclear families, and non-existent parental leave, there aren't many options. We as a society have dismissed and devalued children and child-rearing to the point that they have become expendable. So I don't think the answer to our problems is any book on training babies. We need to train our culture. We need to write books on how to train lawmakers and employers to respect and support parenting. Paid parental leave, flexible work schedules, better access to quality childcare...these things shouldn't be luxuries. These are basic necessities for a healthy functioning society.
If you would like to read more on appropriate expectations for infants, the following links have some valuable insight.
(This is the last and most relevant of a five part series but all of them are worth your time.)