For me, one the hardest things about becoming a new mom was how my formerly ordered, controlled world became one of sheer and utter chaos. Like many women, I thrived on routine and valued my individuality and ability to achieve success. Having a baby basically smashed all that into tiny, unrecognizable pieces.
My sleep was wrecked. I couldn’t figure out how to find time to use the bathroom or eat lunch—let alone plan my day or try to accomplish any one task to its completion.
As someone with an anxiety disorder in the first place, this was all extremely stressful. I loved my baby, and wanted to do anything for him, but I also just really craved order and structure. And so, like many new moms, I scoured the internet looking for it. What I found were a million websites and books that offered baby care routines and schedules that not only guaranteed more sleep, more predictability to your day, but also a happier baby and mom.
The problem was, I had no idea how I would implement schedules like these. Almost all of the baby care routines designated very specific times that you were supposed to feed your baby, play with your baby, and put them down for a nap (and also, what order to do those things in). Yeah, they said that there was some flexibility, but they also made it sound like you would destroy the whole plan if you swayed from the schedule even a little bit.
And as a mom who was breastfeeding on demand (which ended up being almost every hour sometimes!), and whose baby just did not like to sleep, I wasn’t exactly sure how the heck I was going to do this all. But hey, I was guaranteed some rest, and some much desired order and happiness.
So I tried. And I tried. And I failed. Miserably. My baby cried when I didn’t feed him according to the schedule. I cried when my boobs were full with milk. We both cried when I put him down for naps that he resisted with all his might.
At first, I was certain that was something wrong with me, or my baby. I didn’t know that many other moms yet, and I just sort of assumed that most babies could fit into tight molds like these. Like I said, I desperately, desperately, wanted something—anything—that would bring calm and order into my life.
But it just would not work, and I became a baby routine failure. That didn’t mean that life with a baby was chaos forever (and I later learned a little chaos was par for the course). Once my baby was a little older, he started napping on a schedule, and that helped a lot. But I always followed his cues and to this day, that kid will not sleep unless he is dead tired. And we continued to nurse on demand for a long time, which helped keep up my milk supply and kept us both content.
Not only do they very rarely work, but they create a whole lot of unnecessary stress for new moms.
Now that I’ve done the baby thing with two kids, and gotten through to the other side, I can say without a doubt that strict baby care routines are almost all total bullshit. Not only do they very rarely work, but they create a whole lot of unnecessary stress for new moms.
Amy Brown, Associate Professor of Child Public Health at Swansea University, agrees with me. In an editorial on The Conversation, Brown takes a strong stand against the books that advocate very rigid “eat/play/sleep” routines for babies. She believes that these routines not only don’t work, but they actually can be damaging for both moms and babies.
“Baby care books can have many unintended consequences, one being they may simply not work, as the babies themselves have not read them and so don’t follow the ‘rules,’" writes Brown. “At worst this can mean mothers are mis-sold the promise of a settled baby, which doesn’t happen and leaves parents feeling like they have failed.”
Brown says that this feeling of failure can increase anxiety and depression in new moms, sometimes even contributing to postpartum mood disorders. Additionally, Brown explains that such routines really go against a babies’ biological make-up, and can end up causing undue stress for babies as well as moms.
Many of these baby care routines require parents to pay attention the schedule rather than a baby’s individual needs, ignoring the baby’s in-born hunger cues, sleep cues, and desire to be held or cuddled, explains Brown.
“Leaving a baby to cry raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may negatively affect a baby’s developing brain,” Brown says. “Suggestions that encourage putting a baby to sleep in a separate room for the first six months, rather than sleeping in the same room as the mother, have been linked to an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).”
Brown also has some pointed words to say about how strict baby care routines can sabotage breastfeeding, and deplete a mom’s milk supply. Breastfed babies tend to eat very frequently—sometimes every hour—because breastmilk is digested quickly and easily. And artificially extending the time between feedings can reduce a mom’s milk supply which can lead to early weaning from breastfeeding, she says.
Wow, these are some pretty scathing (and scary) consequences, don’t you think? I will contend that perhaps there are some babies out there who fit right into the mold, and can grow, thrive, and be happy with routines that tightly control their eating and sleeping schedules. But it seems like that's the exception rather than the rule.
Of course, none of this should be taken to mean that a parent shouldn’t be able to eventually find ways to create structure and routine into their day. In my experience, there are ways to do this organically and mindfully, listening to your baby’s cues and needs. In fact, as babies get older, many thrive on more flexible routines.
But if your newborn just isn't into following a strict eating and sleeping schedule, there's nothing wrong with them. Or you. They're totally normal, and there are millions of us out there with babies just like that.
Trust me, you will get through this time of new baby chaos. And one day, you might look back on it all with a certain wistfulness, and maybe even a little tear in your eye.