So, apparently, it’s true. I’d always done significant eye rolling about this “baseless” propaganda, but a new study by researchers from the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex and Oxford University that surveyed a whopping 10,419 children confirmed what all the infant-scheduling books have been saying for years: Mothers who demand feed are more exhausted and grumpy than mothers who feed their babies according to schedules. The researchers found something else, too, though, something that demand-feeding advocates have implied for years in their own propaganda: Demand-fed babies grow up to do better in school, score higher on standardized tests, and have slightly higher IQ’s than babies fed on a schedule. (You can read a news report here, but be forewarned, gentlemen lurking on my girly blog, there’s a breastfeeding picture.)
So, the mudslingers on both sides are right. Feeding on a schedule is genuinely better for the mother. But feeding on demand (I prefer the term “on cue,” but I’m using the ISER researchers’ term here) is genuinely better for the baby. Both sides have done a rather spectacular job of justifying the sacrifice they expected one party or the other to make for the good of the party of preference, whether the mother or the baby, and have downplayed very real stresses.
Having to respond to your baby twenty-four hours a day is draining, unpredictable, and overwhelming, so enter the noble schedule, and voila, instant breaks, a free pass NOT to respond during certain predetermined times. “At 3:00, you can let your baby cry because it is her scheduled nap time. You should not feed her until 4:30, because that is three hours from her last feeding, and we say she only needs to eat every three hours, even if she cries. It might be hard for her, but you are teaching her that she is not the center of the universe, that she must obey, and that there are other people that she needs to consider.” Never mind that you are actually depriving your baby of the full amount of nutrition and responsiveness that she needs for optimum brain development.
On the other hand, being abandoned at regular intervals and ignored when hungry is stressful for the baby, it destroys trust, deprives her of the some of the calories and nutrients she needs to grow, and leaves her potentially lonely and afraid, so enter around-the-clock demand feeding, and voila, instant access to Mommy, a free pass for love and attention any time of the day or night. “Snuggle your baby whenever she wants it. Nurse her every time she’s hungry. Never leave her alone when she’s crying. It might be hard for you, but you’ll teach her that there is love in the world, that someone cares about her, and that her early attempts at communication are heard and understood.” Never mind that mom is run ragged, never sleeps more than a couple of hours at a time, and can’t figure out how to get dinner made let alone schedule any appointments, ever.
But does there really have to be this dichotomy? Is it possible to have BOTH a well-rested, happy mother, and a baby who’s getting everything she needs? I believe it is. At least it was at our house. I went from the bewildered, exhausted, completely boggled slave of a mother all the scheduling books prophesy to being well-rested in body and spirit WITHOUT switching from demand feeding to schedule feeding. I am sure there’s more than one way to do it, but I want to share what worked for me.
When I first started demand feeding, I had all these cultural expectations of what a “normal” baby’s life was supposed to be like. “Babies spend their days happily in bouncy seats and swings.” “Babies sleep in cribs.” “Babies eat every two to three hours.” But babies often aren’t anything like this. Mine sure haven’t been. But in the beginning, I was attempting to organize my life around these expectations, and my attempts blew up in my face. My baby cried all the time, and I was left in a puddle of despair.
But as I’ve thrown out my cultural expectations one by one and gotten a new view of “normal,” the stress has disappeared. I can sleep all night long and get my work done easily (as easily as any mother of five can get her work done in between finding out who left the Sharpies where the toddler could reach them and who took the stuffed horse from whom and why), and I don’t worry at all about scheduling appointments or shopping trips.
What does my new “normal” look like? Here’s what I’ve learned in no particular order.
Babies were designed to be carried.
In my early days of demand feeding, I thought I was going to nurse my baby and then put her down for a couple of hours. Guess what? She cried. Every time. I thought my life was over. WHAT was wrong? Did she have colic? Was she not getting enough milk? A schedule provides a lot of comfort in this sort of situation because it tells you “why” your baby is crying. “If she cries between 3:00 and 4:30, it’s because she’s tired. Leave her in her crib. If she cries at 4:30, it’s because she’s hungry. Feed her.” This alleviates heaps of maternal worry and frustration (goodbye grumpiness), but sometimes the schedule is wrong. And in the case of babies who cry whenever you put them down, schedules usually aren’t any help at all.
It turns out that babies’ little bodies were designed to be the most comfortable in their parents’ arms. Over the course of the first year, a baby’s spine changes from a “C” shape at birth to an elongated “S” shape necessary for the baby to learn to walk. All of the containers we have devised to put our babies in–car seats, bouncy chairs, swings, and especially flat surfaces like cribs and stroller–put pressure on our babies’ little spines and fight against the development of adult curvature. Is it any wonder so many of them hate sitting for long periods of time in these things? If I had to spend all day in chairs that hurt my back, I think I might complain about it, too. The best position for a baby’s spine is upright with her knees bent, pulled up, and spread just like a little froggy. This is exactly the position a newborn assumes when you pick her up and let her sit on your arm. (See this article for a thorough discussion of the physiology of baby gear. I have to admit that the typos annoy me, but the research is solid, and I can’t find an alternate article with as much scope as this one.)
The problem with saying, “Oh just carry your baby ALL the time” is that it’s hard! How are you supposed to get anything done that way? What about YOUR back and your arms and your wrists? (De Quervain tendonitis anyone? Can I get an amen?) That’s why there are daddies and siblings and especially baby carriers. There are dozens of styles out there. Some don’t keep babies in the “froggy” position and should be avoided, and some aren’t going to fit your body right and should also be avoided. But rather than trying to get my babies to learn to sit happily in their car seats and swings for hours (and fretting when they don’t), I’ve spent time finding the carriers that fit us and allow me to carry my babies relatively stress free for hours. Expecting to carry my baby most of the time has alleviated most of the daytime chaos and uncertainty and given me the ability to plan my life, giving me some of the biggest benefits of a schedule without a schedule. My babies stay comfortable and content most of the time. They fall asleep when they’re tired without my ever having to worry about being home at certain times to put them in their cribs (if we had cribs). I have my hands free to garden, type, sew, or grocery shop. If my baby needs something, I know right away. And most importantly, since I’m not trying to make them fit my old concept, I’m not worrying. I don’t wonder about milk supply or colic or WHY my baby isn’t “normal.” Life goes on, and we’re both happy.
Babies sleep best with their mothers.
The number one hardest thing about demand feeding may very well be nighttimes. First there’s the sleep deprivation, the bleary-eyed staggering to your baby’s room eighteen times a night for yet another nursing session, followed often by the desperation and panic when your baby does not want to go back to sleep in her crib but makes it very clear that she’d rather stay snuggled up with you. This alone can cause total exhaustion and grumpiness a million times over. But the problem isn’t demand feeding. It’s our cultural beliefs about where babies should sleep.
Our culture tells us our babies will sleep peacefully in their adorable nurseries we painted just the right color back when our bellies were big and our due dates were circled in red. The truth is babies want their mothers at night. Co-sleeping babies cry four times less frequently than babies who sleep alone and are also at a four times lower risk for SIDS. Their temperatures and heart rates are more stable, and they have fewer long pauses in breathing (see here for references for all these). They also nurse more. Co-sleeping babies nurse twice as often and have three times the total nightly duration of nursing compared to babies who sleep alone (see here). “But wait!” I can hear you saying, “I don’t want my baby to nurse more. I want her to nurse less so I can sleep more!” But what if your baby actually needs that extra milk? Is it possible for her to get it AND for you to sleep more?
A lot of mothers, my early mothering self included, put considerable blood, sweat, and tears into trying to get their babies to sleep longer between feedings and even to go eight or twelve hours without nursing. Some of them try co-sleeping for a little while and find they can’t do it. They’re uncomfortable, or they have to wake up to nurse anyway, etc. And while co-sleeping should always be left a personal choice, it’s worth considering that sometimes the amount of effort needed to sleep train the mother to sleep comfortably while nursing is MUCH less than the amount needed to sleep train a baby to go without her mother and her mother’s milk for a full night. It sure was for me. It took a few weeks for me to learn, and I had to experiment a bunch with positions (the angle of my pillow turned out to be key), but now that I know what I’m doing, I get a full night’s sleep from almost day one. When well-meaning strangers ask cheerfully if my baby is sleeping through the night, I always smile and say, “Well, I sleep through the night. She nurses whenever she wants.”
Newborns don’t nurse at regular intervals.
Everyone says that new babies nurse every two to three hours. That’s only sort of true. It’s actually an average of an average. Over the course of a day, an average baby will nurse a bunch of times, and if you average the space between nursing sessions, you’ll get something around two to three hours. But if you plan your day around an average, you’ll wind up with a crying hungry baby right when you’re trying to make dinner because what usually happens in reality is that babies go longer in the morning and cluster nurse in the evenings (right when you’re starving and desperately trying to get some veggies made to go with the casserole you froze before the birth). When I first encountered this ravenous, almost continuous evening nursing, I worried that my baby wasn’t getting enough milk. I also thought I might never do anything but nurse ever again. The expectation that nursing sessions should be evenly spaced sets us up for frustration and bewilderment when they aren’t and can lead to wanting to ditch demand feeding so life will be as predictable as we were hoping. But you can get the same predictability if you just realize that your baby will probably be more content in the morning and hungrier in the evening. In the new “normal,” I try to get as much done as I possibly can in the morning, and then in the evening I get to cuddle up and nurse while reading, surfing the web, blogging, etc. I look forward to cluster nursing as a fun break time.
If you read all this, wrinkle up your nose, and say it sounds horrible, then maybe it isn’t for you. This certainly isn’t the only way to be a good mother. It’s just the way that I’ve found that lets me beat the system and feed my baby’s brain without losing my mind.