When you first become a mom, you have no idea about…well about so very many things (but that is ok). You probably will read, consult, pray, worry, think, reflect, process, and then eventually decide on some system or non-system to use with your newborn that fits you and your family.
Last year several young expectant moms asked me to write about newborn care, but I put off writing this post for many months for several reasons. One reason has to do with the strong emotions that the schedule vs. demand feeding debates elicit, and (frankly I do not care which system you choose, as long as I don’t have to babysit). This post therefore will be divided into three parts: an examination of the debate, Dr. Denmark’s rationale for feeding and sleeping schedules, and a suggestion that eventually all moms have to be able to distinguish between wants and needs, and summon the fortitude to listen to some whining.
I did not have the internet when we had our little ones (I know–people actually raised children without it), but as you know I had Dr. Denmark, who was an advocate of breast feeding, and putting newborns on a feeding and sleeping schedule; that’s what we did, and it worked pretty nicely (although we bottle fed.) Had my pediatrician been convinced that feeding on demand is best, I would have probably done that (if the reasons seemed equally sensible to me). Whatever system you choose, you can find tons of information about the particulars on the internet. Sometimes you can find some pretty sensible comments from both sides, but there are often emotionally charged comments. For example, I am hard pressed to read an article from the demand feeding camp that does not have the word rigid in front of the word schedule. However, if you think about the way the world works–whether it is transportation, sunshine, TV, work hours, or even meal times with the non-newborn crowd, the world is on a schedule for many important and non-important things. We don’t say–I need to check that rigid bus schedule, or let me see when the rigid Creator is allowing the moon to be full. No, we accept a certain amount of regularity in the natural and non-natural world. The obligatory use of the word rigid rather than a more neutral word such as regular does give one’s feelings about the topic away. To be sure, you will never see an author post in favor of a rigid schedule (not even here.) When a mom I had mentored bragged to me that they refused to feed their baby at 9:55, but made them wait till 10 on the dot, I cringed as she smiled proudly (leading me to see that people, not schedules, can be rigid.) Unfortunately mentoring can create monsters, but I came to learn that so much of mothering reveals our own personality traits-yes, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Dr. Denmark’s Rationale
One concern from the demand mom camp seems to be about the psychological harm that will surely ensue if a baby is crying and comfort in the form of food is not offered. These moms have a point worth considering, and maybe us rigid schedulers would do well to consider it. We did have to let the babies cry a bit each day, but Dr. Denmark explained that this was actually good for a newborn as it helped to expand the alveoli in their lungs, and that the crying “workout” was actually good for their circulation, as it gets the blood pumping. We did check in on them, talk to them, sing to them, pat them, and pick them up, but yes, we did let them cry. Many years later I learned that excessive crying may interfere with the closing of the foramen ovale for some infants, which makes me wonder why something would be good for the lungs but bad for the newborn heart. Still researching this one, but as some of you know, offering food for crying does not always work. And overfeeding can upset a baby’s stomach, which can lead to…well, crying. I will continue to look into this. Obviously, I do not think that letting a baby cry some each day is dangerous or child abuse, but I will grant that it is not a pleasant thing to listen to. (You may notice that no one has a screaming infant ring tone.)
For others the main concern is about getting sufficient fluid and nutrition to the newborn, which was Dr. Denmark’s focus as well. To her food was more of a physiological event rather than an emotional one, although she did want eating time to be pleasant (no nagging or fighting at the table-more on that later). She had studied gastric emptying time and saw that it took about 3-4 hours for a newborn stomach to completely empty, so she concluded that it would not be good to introduce fresh food into the stomach for 3-4 hours. (Many disagree with her on this time frame, saying it is more like 90 minutes-3 hours for the stomach to empty, especially for breast milk.) Again, her rationale was that the stomach does not need to be filled the minute it is empty; it is good for it to rest a bit between feedings. That made sense to me as well.
As a person who grew up on a farm, Dr. Denmark used to tell me about how young animals could never get their mamas to feed them on demand, and just had to wait. Sure enough when our mama cat had a litter of kittens the kids and their city slicker mom spent many hours watching them interact, and this was the case. The little ones would constantly bump up against their mama, meowing, but she would sit on her tummy, and just watch them, clean them, nuzzle them, but would not feed them until a set time, (presumably when she felt full). At that point, she would lay on her side, and let the kittens feed. Then like clockwork, she would turn back over till the next feeding. Dr. Denmark told me many times that humans would be better off if they would study animals and learn from them.
Dr. Denmark also compared feeding too often to adding dirty clothes to a washing machine in the middle of the cycle. She thought it best to run the full cycle before starting all over again. Again, her patient explanation to me made sense-the food in the stomach is being processed with stomach acid to break it down, and adding a brand new batch of food into an already begun batch would delay the process of moving the food out of the stomach, as it held onto to the entire batch to start from the beginning. To continue our washing machine analogy, it would be as if you added dirty clothes mid-cycle but this time, your washing machine is smart enough to know it, and instead of moving right along, it starts all over so the newly added dirty clothes get the same start to finish process. As you see, that brief explanation took about 5 minutes in Dr. Denmark’s office–I really did not pore over books or the web for hours or agonize about it. I simply went home and did what she said and it worked.
But…there are plenty of books, especially medical ones, that will tell you that a newborn must eat every 2 hours, and/or every hour, and if you prefer that route you will have lots of support. In the end you will do what your gut tells you makes sense, as I did. And that is fine. Most moms end up with a system that is somewhere between letting their baby do anything they seem to want at anytime, to putting their baby on such a rigid schedule that they never eat at 9:59 instead of 10.
As far as sleep, Dr. Denmark was convinced that babies need a big long sleep at night, and regular naps during the day, and taught us to establish that from day one. She was the one who first mentioned circadian rhythms to me, and again, it made sense. The sleeping schedule dovetailed beautifully with the feeding schedule, and mom would be able to get some rest, and not upset her own circadian rhythm. Years later when we returned from China, I found the one page, typed paper she gave me with the feeding and sleeping schedule on it and smiled at its simplicity. I suppose she typed it herself-as the copy had the look of a 1940 typewriter. It is a paper that I now treasure and always will, even if newer science tells me I did it all wrong, (which I expect will happen.)
Eventually most moms find that some type of schedule will emerge, especially if there are other children in the home. Incidentally, Dr. Denmark did not feel that any age person should eat anytime they wish. She wanted moms to feed children nutritious meals, and give no snacks in between so they would actually be hungry for the good food Mom prepared. She also did not want their palates to be ruined for good food by the strong taste of junk food. I have to say that I am glad she taught me that, as it has helped me develop better eating habits that I still use today. Now that there is an obesity epidemic among America’s young children, I see why she placed so much importance on not using food or juice as a pacifier. (Yes, no juice and no gold fish!).
As I said, Dr. Denmark believed that basing feeding and sleeping on physiology did not conflict with psychological needs; she felt that the two needs were not competing, but instead were connected, and could be addressed together to establish good habits that brought good health and harmony to the entire family. I always was amused when a tired new mom would complain about getting up in the night so many times, and when someone would suggest they put their baby on a schedule, they would quickly reply “Oh, I don’t mind.” What was interesting to me about that (in addition to the complaining while simultaneously not minding) was that I knew Dr. Denmark would tell them that it is not good health-wise for either mom or baby to be up all night. Mom can become so sleep deprived that safety becomes an issue the next day, and babies need a good long sleep.
Wants vs. Needs
So, how does a new mom distinguish between wants and needs? Eventually we all have to acquire this skill. New moms learn their baby’s cry-and can often tell when they are tired, sick, hungry, or frightened. As your baby gets older however, one day you may realize that your baby/toddler/young child is able to manipulate you and you will be surprised. Don’t be. It is not that they are deviously planning this in their crib, bragging about it to the other infants, or networking with infant gangs to get what they want-it is a simple behaviorist principle at work-when I push this button-this happens a lot so…let me push it again, and maybe…ok…every time I push it this happens….and voila! You have a bit of manipulation going on. Hey don’t feel bad…my 4 lb. fur baby can do it too. She has me trained to take her outside to use the bathroom 40 times each day, when really she just wants to bark at the squirrels. She does have a bladder the size of a thimble but seriously, 40 times? That dog has got my number.
The thing is, as you learn how to interact with your baby/child, and figure out that it is ok for you to be in control of some things, you discover that they may not always appreciate you for that. In other words, at some point most moms (except half of the ones on Wife Swap) must be willing for their kids not to think they are groovy 24/7.
So there you go-young mom friends. Feel free to disagree, and to find others who say people like me are nuts, control freaks, out of date, or behind the research curve. I am sure in many aspects all of those apply. And as a researcher, I am keen to know of new developments in best practices for infant care, as I know Dr. Denmark would be. And finally, to the young moms who asked me to write about this, I am sorry your kids are already in middle school.