Why getting babies into strict routines isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Modern women are expected to juggle work, homelife and motherhood, mostly by themselves. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The transition to becoming a new mother can be one of the most stressful times in a woman’s life. A loss of independence and control combined with the overwhelming, unrelenting realisation that you are now responsible for an unpredictable tiny human can leave feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious and can increase the risk of postnatal depression – particularly if a woman is used to a high powered career, financial security and freedom before they gave birth.

As part of this transition to motherhood, new mothers take part in a process called “maternal role attainment”, where they look to other mothers around them to see how they act and decide which behaviours they are going to adopt or not. Years ago women would look to their own mothers, extended family and all the other women in the street who had young babies. Today, families are more dispersed, women are having fewer babies and life is lived far more in private, meaning we often replace this casual information with that of self-styled “experts” and their “how to” guides.

There is a multi-million pound market just waiting for new mothers, to sell them a dream of how their life could really be. The baby care book market is vast. Numerous titles have been written to target that out-of-control feeling many modern mothers have with a new baby. They promise to be able to get babies into strict feeding and sleeping routines that will give mothers more predictability, control and ultimately free time. They offer a vision of a “supermum” complete with settled baby.

These promises are often too good to be true. 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”. 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.

But what if you can follow the instructions? Typically authors recommend responding to babies according to strictly timed routines rather than when they are naturally hungry, sleepy or simply want a cuddle. This can be damaging in a number of ways. Leaving a baby to cry raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may negatively affect a baby’s developing brain. 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).

One of the other main risks of strict routines is through damaging breastfeeding. Breast milk is very easily digested and frequent feeds are needed to build up milk supply. Breastfed babies can easily feed every two hours or more, and missing out or trying to extend the time in between feeds can reduce supply because the body thinks the milk isn’t needed. Babies also wake up at night for reasons other than hunger, and whether they are breastfed or drinking formula doesn’t affect this, but it can cause anxiety for new mothers who think their baby is feeding too much or should be sleeping.

It’s not surprising that new mothers turn to these experts to try and get their baby into a promised routine. However, research shows that mothers who try to follow a strict routine to breastfeed are less likely to carry on breastfeeding, often stopping because they think they don’t have enough milk.

Thinking that babies should be in a routine, worrying about how much they feed and thinking they can manipulate you has also been shown to be linked to early stopping of breastfeeding. Meanwhile the perception that a baby is feeding too often and so breastfeeding should be stopped is predictive of postnatal depression.

It is easy to understand why these books and routines are so appealing to new mothers. In a society where mothers are isolated, unprepared and pressured to “get their lives back” it is little wonder that they look for advice. But how about rather than trying to force babies into routines and damaging breastfeeding, society pulls together to support new mothers, mothering and caring for them, leaving them free to care for their babies while others help with everything else?

In cultures around the world, such as in India and China, new mothers are cared for after the birth for at least six weeks and have far higher breastfeeding rates and lower rates of postnatal depression than Western society. If mothers are going to be able to care for the next generation, society must culturally change how it values and cares for new mothers.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.