I sit here now, somewhat browner than the last time I put digit to keyboard, thinking back on my recent holiday to escape the long, UK winter. It tickles me that, even though I was many, many miles away from my home, I continued to hang onto my set routine: a cup of tea in bed before breakfast, heading for lunch at 1pm, catching up with the nightly news on TV and reading a couple of chapters of my book before turning out the light at night. New routines also quickly formed: always the same spot for my sun lounger, dragging myself away from my book for a morning session of pool volleyball and tip-toeing quickly across the scorching sand mid-afternoon to dash into the sea and float out for a quiet, bobbing moment of briny mindfulness.
Humans are creatures of habit. We love patterns and see them even when they are not really there – holding onto them like a security blanket to warm us against the cruelty of our mortality.
When our lives are rocked by the entrance into our universe of a new baby, we quickly search for any semblance of a pattern that we can latch onto to steady and reassure ourselves. Many books tap into this need and promise to help us get our newborns into a routine when they have barely drawn their first breath. After all, if humans are lovers of routines, surely babies should be a doddle to steer towards one?
There is no doubt that even very young children and babies seem to really feel reassured and more settled when each day is much like the last, and parents the world over will tell you that children thrive when they can relax, knowing that their boundaries are set and that dinner will always hit the table at 5pm. So why do all your attempts to get your teeny tiny into a regular routine fail?
If you read back over the earlier blogs you will start to see that the very young baby is hard-wired, through millions of years of evolution, to survive. She is driven to do anything it takes, for as long as necessary, to get what she needs to make it through to tomorrow. Your need for a regular bedtime or an undisturbed morning shower have no interest for your little earthling. And your opinion on what her routine should be impresses her not one iota. She has emerged into this world vulnerable and in the hands of someone who has little idea who she is and what she needs. So she had better teach that person pretty jolly quickly!
So, for the first three months of life, the human baby has a set of survival strategies that fundamentally fight the drive towards a routine. The systems that normally keep us settled and comfortable are turned to high alert and so the new baby has an irregular breathing pattern, irregular heartbeat, feisty reflexes (see those jazz hands go!) erratic temperature control, an oversensitive and spasm-ing gut and an inability to fight any bugs that come her way. On top of this, her immature system is hyper-aware of all these erratic goings on inside her skin, driving her to distraction.
Now, in order for these systems to settle and calm, the new baby needs to be in close contact with a fully working older human and guess who that might be. Every time you pick up your writhing, squalling baby, he begins to calm a wee bit and, the more you jiggle, pat, soothe and suckle him, the more his breathing, heart rate, reflexes, temperature and gut calm the heck down. Until you put him back in his crib, at which point he kicks off again …
So a baby survives the early months by doing everything it takes to stay close in arms and frequently suckled. More about this crazy picture in the next blog.
For now, simply be aware that, in the first three months of life, if your little one was able to learn a routine, he would be able to spend longer out of arms and this would work against his inbuilt survival strategies as set down by millions of years of evolution. So stop fighting evolution for a while. Your baby is a human being after all and, in time, he will enjoy a routine as much as the next Homo sapiens but for now, he needs to just do whatever it takes to stay close to you and be soothed for survival.
Over these first three months, because parents find they have no choice but to adapt to their baby, their expectations and behaviour gradually change until, by about the forth month, they automatically carry their little one everywhere and suckle her at the drop of a hat. They pass the baby around the family all evening without giving it a second thought and are so used to the long, long sucklings that the next stage completely throws them!
Between months four and five, the baby, who has now beautifully imprinted herself entirely on her doting parents, begins to settle. She no longer needs to work day and night to keep her parents protecting her – they do it automatically. This is what we call “attachment” and “bonding”. Now she can begin to look out towards the wider world. Her systems governing breathing, heartbeat, reflexes, temperature and infection all settle down and the soothing effects of long hours skin to skin at the boob are no longer necessary. Now that she is a little safer in the world, the evolutionary drive to survive can allow for learning of habits and routines. Before this, no matter what you do, a baby is simply incapable of learning a routine: survival must come first. Sure your friend tells you that her little one-month old baby has a routine, but every study that has looked into newborn behaviour tells us that your friend is simply seeing a pattern where there is none – she has thrown a dice ten times and each time she has turned up a “six”. Or she interprets her baby’s behaviour according to her world view (when her little one settles at 8pm she declares that “my routine-setting really works” and when her baby screams through 8pm and doesn’t settle until 10pm she worries that “her wind is really bad tonight. Nothing I have done has eased it and it has really thrown her usual routine!”). External observers just don’t see the pattern that the mother declares is present due to her brilliant parenting efforts!
As month four merges into month five and month five slides into month six, you will start to see patterns of wakefulness solidify and regular sleep cues for naps emerge. You will also start to see a more reliable bedtime appear. Her ability to get off to sleep without help is not innate so do not expect a settled pattern of behaviour to bring a break from rocking and soothing your baby to sleep but, should you feel it is right for you, now is the time to explore the option of helping your baby to learn self-soothing strategies. So called “sleep training” can work for most parents from the end of month five onwards but it is entirely up to you as to whether or not you do this. Some parents continue to help their baby navigate their way through a day and night-time routine and some choose to go the path of “sleep training” – neither choice defines you as a parent.
So, if your baby is three months and under, hang loose – nothing you do will help your baby to learn a routine but you might well exhaust yourself, and those who love you, by trying. If your little one is four or five months, start to watch for those tell-tale signs that he is maturing towards a more structured life – fewer evening hysterics and noticeable sleep cues such as ear-tugging and eye-rubbing. And, if your baby is six months or more, your efforts to get your life back into a more recognisable routine is likely to succeed.
I can’t promise you time to float on your back in the sea, but a quiet sit down for twenty minutes every morning with a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit is a distinct possibility!