Written by: Emily McRae, Health Psychologist, PGDipHealthPsych, MSc
There are a lot of ‘heated’ debates in parenting circles. Whether to immunise, what nappies to use, or even how to ‘best’ feed your baby, for a start. But what is also increasingly debated these days is ‘to routine or not to routine’.
On the one hand, are parents who argue strongly for being totally baby led. That this is what the baby needs and is therefore ultimately best for the baby.
On the other, are parents who strongly advocate for a routine. Arguing instead, that the consistency of a routine is ultimately best for the baby.
And, like most hotly contested parenting debates, never the twain shall meet.
The question as a psychologist quickly becomes, why are we all so quick to pit each other off against one another so much? Whether it be about routines, or any other parenting topic, why are we so quick to form a strong opinion, and debate one another? Why are we so intently focused on forcing our opinion on others, rather than just simply carrying on and making decisions that we feel are best for our babies?
I often wish the Hippocratic Oath was something all parents had to sign before taking our babies home - first do no harm. If we all used this as a baseline, then surely any parenting decision that adhered to this, has to be accepted, and tolerated? And certainly not debated.
When it comes to routines, there is certainly a lot of evidence ‘for’ routines. It is well established that babies and children thrive when there is consistency in their day. In addition, there is certainly something to be said for a baby that can sleep and feed well – I think everyone wins in that situation. And although they are deemed ‘strict’ and ‘boring’, paradoxically, routines often provide you with the greatest opportunity for outings as you know when (even roughly) your baby needs feeding or sleeping.
For many parents who are struggling with baby sleep, a routine is their silver bullet. It gives them everything they need – advice, guidance, stability, and safety. And, sleep! This is how they thrive as parents. When we consider that sleep deprivation literally is a form of torture, we can easily see how a baby sleep routine can be psychologically beneficial too. Restorative sleep can often be the difference between thriving or not as a parent.
However, and this is key, what is fundamental when thinking about a routine is the ability to be flexible and adaptable when carrying out a routine. When we are rigid in our thinking style, if the routine is off – even by 5 minutes – this can psychologically throw us out. The “what if” thoughts come racing in, thick and fast, telling us that our day is ruined, our baby will not sleep again, and we are ‘due’ a bad night sleep…
In this way, routines have the capacity to derail us. But, and this is an important but, only if we allow them too. If we can have the flexibility to make tweaks to the routine, if we can adapt if things ‘don’t go to plan’, then we do not get so flustered, anxious or derailed.
As with all things, the routine – in and of itself- is not the problem. It is our relationship to it.
So, taken together, routines have the ability to be incredibly beneficial to us as parents, and also for our children. If we have the right attitude toward them.
If routines have the ability to help us as parents, and help our babies, why then, does the debate continue? One such hypothesis might be due to the idea that to adhere to a routine you need to use strict settling styles. Cue: “the cry it out method”. Parents may assume that to stick to a routine they will need to let their babies cry themselves to sleep which is fundamentally against their parenting style. Therefore, perhaps this is one such argument against the routine. However, although many sleep experts encourage self-settling, how you want to encourage that is entirely over to you. Keeping to a feeding and sleeping schedule, does not mean you have to engage in any parenting techniques you do not feel comfortable with.
Another argument ‘against’ a routine is that is goes against what a baby ‘naturally’ wants to do. Therefore, to routine is to go against ‘nature’. It follows that if we allow our baby to feed and sleep when they want, this is the most naturalistic and normal pattern to be in. For those blessed with good sleepers, and keen feeders, this may work really well. However, for every ‘good’ sleeper, exist many more 'bad' sleepers, such that a routine is the only thing that enables the baby to get into a somewhat natural rhythm of sleep.
Note, however, that neither is good nor bad. Rather, a decision has been made based on your baby about what feels right; what feels right for your baby, and what feels right for you as a parent. Decisions formed with the ethos of first do no harm.
So, why does the debate exist? If we all are ‘doing no harm’, and doing our best, why do we continue to argue for and against routines? Why is it debated at all?
There is a good evidence base for a routine, and for many people it works. So why are those who don’t advocate for them arguing against it? Equally so, if not having a routine works for others – can’t we just let them be? Why do we need to put others down, just to put ourselves up? Is it to justify our life choice? Is it to make ourselves feel better? Is it because we feel we have the answer to be the perfect parent?
It may take some self-reflection to find the answer here.
So, to routine or not to routine? Well, the answer lies within you. There is a great backing for a routine, so long as you approach it with the right attitude. And remember, if you do want a routine, those who aren’t following one are not doing anything wrong. They’re just doing things differently.
Why don’t we make a conscious effort to drop the heated debates? Let’s embrace diversity in parenting and respect people will have different parenting styles. So long as harm is not being done.
Life is tough, we need to celebrate ideas and ways to make things easier and enjoyable – that work for us. We are allowed to thrive as parents; and if that means following a routine, so be it.
About the Author
Emily is a Health Psychologist (NZ Registered) with a decade of experience in psychology. Emily runs a health and wellness website - thewellhub.co - where she provides online support to enhance psychological wellness. Emily also assesses and supports patients prior to surgery at a private hospital in New Zealand. Emily is a mother to three young children - Archie (5) and twins - Eli & Sienna (3) and lives in Auckland, New Zealand.