It’s an unfortunate reality that many pediatricians still advocate putting a baby on a four-hour eat – play – sleep schedule. This often ends up being a huge source of stress for parents as they fight against nature and try to control things that are largely out of their control.
I would argue that the four hour schedule is very strongly linked to the lack of maternity leave in many developed countries. Many mothers are required to go back to work as early as 6 weeks after the birth of their child, forcing them to leave their babies with child minders. This isn’t a mother’s fault – this is the fault of the state, who’s motives are not aligned with the needs of an undeveloped newborn and a healing new mom. Nevertheless, that’s the situation we find ourselves in, and from a logistical standpoint, it is much, much easier for childcare centers to care for infants and young children when they are all on a consistent schedule. This completely ignores the fact that feeding every four hours, rather than on demand, can quickly dry up a mother’s supply (and/or cause mastistis), leading her to rely on formula to make sure her baby is getting enough food. Again, this is ideal for the state! Formula fed babies are much easier to manage in care!
Yet even women who stay home with their babies report a trickle-down effect on the “importance” of scheduled feeding and sleeping times. Even though they would have the means to adopt a more responsive approach, society and mainstream parenting have very loudly made new mothers feel less-than if they don’t get their babies on a consistent schedule right from the start.
The truth, for many parents, is that schedule can de-rail us.
I’ve never seen a convincing reason why we should stop our child from eating to sleep. Sucking (be it breast or bottle) releases the hormone cholecystokinin in baby (and mom if she’s breastfeeding), which results in feeling sleepy. In addition, breast milk contains sleep-inducing hormones, amino acids, and nucleotides. So right off the hop we can see that the logistics of the eat-play-sleep schedule is really just fighting biology. What babies want to do (and what nature designed to be incredibly easy way to get kids down) is to drink to sleep.
There’s also the absurd idea that two babies, even two babies who are the same age, are going to live according to the same schedule. This is idealistic at best; controlling at worst. You and I don’t have the same eat/sleep schedule…heck, you and your life partner might not even agree on when to go to bed and when to wake up! So if two adults don’t enjoy being on the same schedule, how in the world can we reasonably expect that all babies will?
But the biggest problem I have with schedule is that it robs children of the opportunity to get to know their body cues. We want our children to signal when they’re hungry and stop eating when they’re full. We want them to know that falling asleep is a wonderful antidote for feeling sleepy! We want them to rely on internal cues, not external ones.
We need to remember that the first year of a baby’s life is a time of incredible and rapid growth. It is said that babies are born 9 months premature, and that more of their development happens outside of the womb than any other animal. In the womb, babies take nutrition as they need it, and none of them have a problem sleeping. What this tells us is that babies know what they need and when they need it. It’s our job to provide it…not to try to control it.
If you’re breastfeeding, it’s nearly impossible to tell how much breast milk your child is taking in at each feed. When your child is going through a growth spurt, they will eat and sleep more. When they’re teething, they’ll want to eat more (since breast milk has natural pain relievers in it…so does saliva, by the way) and they’ll likely sleep less. If it’s really hot out, or your baby is sick, they are going to look for short and frequent “cluster” feeds, since short feeds have more water content that helps them stay hydrated. And again, they’re probably going to sleep less because they’re hot and uncomfortable. Living by to a schedule doesn’t take any of this into account and makes it really hard to be responsive to what your child is going through.
The truth is, schedule gives parents a false sense of control. Sleep is just not a state that we can force a baby into. If you have decided that naptime is going to be at 9 a.m., but your baby is just not ready to go to sleep, you might find yourself bouncing and rocking for an hour before your baby finally drifts off. For me, this left me feeling frustrated and angry and doing some pretty aggressive yoga ball bounces! Of course, our babies pick up on this energy and it makes going to sleep even more of a battle, because now we’ve created an association between going to bed and everyone getting frustrated. And we’ve wasted a perfectly good hour of the day that we could have used to go on a nice walk instead.
So, you really can’t force a baby to eat or sleep, and neither can a schedule. If your your baby is hungry, they are going to want to eat. They don’t care what time it is. And the only things that are going to get your baby to sleep are sleep-pressure and circadian rhythm. There are a lot of things that will get in the way of your baby falling asleep, and a couple things that can cue your baby to calm down, but the actual falling asleep part is truly out of our control. So please, do not follow an arbitrary schedule you found in a book. There is another way
I get it, parenthood is ambiguous. For those who thrive on predictability, the unpredictability of a baby (or toddler) can be hard. There IS another way – one that will serve both you and your child’s need for structure in a more responsive way. If we can rethink schedule (living by the clock) and embrace rhythm (living by a natural flow to our day), we will find a lot more ease in our parenting.