I thought I would be a pretty relaxed parent. Freewheeling, anything goes, laid-back, unflappable. Turns out I am as anxious and paranoid as the next man. From taking Astrid out of the bath, hovering precariously over the tiled floor, to waking up to find her asleep with her legs jutting out through the bars of the cot, parenthood leaves me racked with worry.
Nowhere do the bouts of jitteriness, doubt and unease emerge as prominently as on the subject of routines. At first, my wife and I were relaxed and easy-going. Astrid ate when she was hungry and slept when she was tired. But like some kind of addict, she slowly started to feed more and more and sleep less and less. Dark rings formed under her eyes. She became as moody as a diva, pricked into bouts of screaming by the merest trifle. Something had to change.
A friend lent us a book – a kind of instruction manual for babies – filled with practical advice about making your baby sleep, eat and play at regular times. Babies love routine, apparently, and, if you follow the instructions precisely, they will become more punctual than German trains, more precise than Swiss clocks. As yet, the results are inconclusive, but I have a few fundamental problems with this approach to parenting.
The ultimate goal of this method is for your child to sleep through the night. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good night’s sleep. But in this case, everything is geared towards this single aim, from the morning feed to the evening bath. If your child does not sleep through the night – as many babies do not – you are left wondering if you have somehow deviated from the mandate or created a defective model.
Worse still, the timetable begins to taint the periods spent with Astrid. No sooner did she wake up than I began to think about putting her to sleep again. The routine made me uptight, clocking in and out like a shift worker. It may have imposed some semblance of order on our chaotic world, but it also sapped some of the freewheeling spirit from it.
The crux of the matter is whether we are all happier one way or the other. Does she prefer regimentation or lack of it? Do we find the structure easier even though she probably cries more?
Scientific research is curiously lacking in this area. I could only find one study into the effects of these different approaches to parenting. The results, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2006, found that parents who followed a scheduled regimen had much less contact with their children and the children cried a lot more than those of relaxed parents. On the flip side, the children of parents with a more relaxed approach woke up more often during the night.
Youngsters live in the moment. If Astrid is happy, she smiles. If she is not, she cries. If she feels hungry, she will cry until she is fed. Sleep, however, is a different matter: Astrid will stay awake – by kicking her legs, rubbing her eyes, jolting herself – as long as something is going on around her. She needs putting to sleep. As she grows older, fixed sleep times will probably become easier, but at the moment we are all happy to go on our nerve.
A few minutes after my daughter’s birth, the midwife handed me a bag of freebies. Nappies, wet wipes, discount vouchers and other items hoping to capture our loyalty to the brand. The next day, another bag containing similar stuff from a different manufacturer arrived. We left the hospital clutching our daughter and a plethora of free baby products.
Babies are no sooner out of the womb than they are turned into consumers. At first it is by proxy and later more directly. Advertisements try to make kids hanker after certain products. Fast-food menus target children’s eyes rather than their taste buds. Perhaps babies know better, though. Astrid is just as happy playing with a tattered old teddy bear as the newfangled one that lights up like a nuclear reactor. In fact, she tends to hurl the glowing form from her cot. In this regard, I think babies have a lot to teach us about how to live life today.