This is a question I find myself asking a lot these days. My babies are on a ‘schedule’ and it is the clock more than anything else that dictates what falls next on the maternal agenda. There are certain times of day that they eat, certain times of day that they sleep, and certain times of day that they are awake and playing. There is a degree of flexibility here, but I won’t lie to you: they don’t get to ‘demand’ much of anything.
We follow the ‘Contented Little Baby’ routines, created and written up ad nauseum by the British super-nanny sensation Gina Ford. There are many experts out there who will guide you through the murky waters of parenting a young baby, but Ford is sui generis in that this woman literally tells you when to wake your baby, when to ‘cream his creases’, and when to get yourself a piece of toast. The amount of detail woven into her routines is astounding in this way and leaves little doubt, to continue the metaphor, as to who exactly is captain of the ship. And she runs a damn tight one indeed.
Ford is a controversial figure not least because, childless herself, her program is not for the weak at heart. Allowing a baby to fall into a pattern of feed times and nap times is an entirely different beast from the legitimately austere sounding activity of putting your baby on a schedule. The first is a rather passive and happy affair, the second almost always involves tears. And Ford is not afraid of tears. She advocates a method of allowing a baby to ‘cry down’ that is wholly sound in theory, but let me tell you: I have had more than one baby on her schedule cry up and up and up.
The point of a schedule is to make the unpredictable less so. It is about control or, at any rate, solving problems. Parents turn to a schedule for a variety of practical reasons: to get their baby to sleep through the night, to make feeding sessions easier and more successful, to minimize periods of fussiness. Or they embrace the idea in a more general sense because they are uncomfortable with the reality that babyhood is a mercurial thing.
I first came across Ford, or rather I first turned to her in desperation, when my second son revealed himself to be a very uncontented little baby. The issue, so far as I understood it, was that he was feeding too often and this was wreaking havoc on his stomach. The reason he was feeding too often, I later discovered, was that I was essentially feeding him every time he would cry. I was feeding him ‘on demand’, or so I thought.
The idea behind demand parenting is that it is the baby who leads the way. He eats when he is hungry - or when you interpret him to be hungry; and he sleeps when he is tired - or you interpret him to be tired. The immediately apparent difficulty with this arrangement, however, is that babies cannot actually tell us when they are either of these things. Sure, there are the ‘cues’ we are told, time and time again, to keep our eyes peeled for, but it is masterful parent who can interpret these often elusive signs perfectly.
It turned out that my son wasn’t actually hungry. He was tired and he couldn’t put himself to sleep (more on this phenomenon later). He would cry and I would shove a boob in his mouth in the hope that this would quell whatever it was that was bothering him. It didn’t. Breastfeeding mothers try this a lot and with good reason: for some babies, a boob is a panacea and who, operating from a base of hormones and sleep-deprivation, wouldn’t call on such a magical resource if available. This trick worked wonders for me with my first son. The only reason I began to question it was when it stopped working. And, believe you me, it definitely stopped working.
This is where Gina Ford is at her most interesting and useful. Her gift, if you will, is that she has formulated a schedule specifically designed for breastfeeding mothers. Timed feedings are often linked with formula - a more quantifiable and uniform substance - but Ford undercuts this association, while at the same time dismissing the four-hourly feedings so popular with our parents’ generation. Her routines allow, and compensate, for the qualities of breastmilk that make eking out longer stretches between feedings such a notorious challenge.
The upshot of her effort is hugely important because it does away with the myth, so detrimental to the breastfeeding cause, that if you go this route you will inevitably become a slave to your baby’s whim (‘He was up seven times last night!’). ‘Demand’ feeding warps when the breast becomes as much about sleep as it is about food. While some babies can deal with this blurring of what milk is for and the sort of sleep association or crutch it can often engender (i.e. they can feed to sleep but then put themselves back to sleep when they wake later on), a lot of babies cannot, and thus the cycle begins. What Ford does so brilliantly is to reaffirm, and remind us, that while breastfeeding can be a wonderful comfort it is first and foremost a source of nutrition. To forget this basic fact is to put yourself at risk for many a sleepless night.
Love her or hate her, it is undeniable that Gina Ford gets results: people who visit my house cannot help but be impressed by the order that reigns within. And yet, for me this enforced calm is sort of sad: I think I am essentially a demand parent trapped in the body of a woman who got stuck with twins. Or, if I am really soul searching, it’s probably fairer to say that I am a demand parent only when I approve of the baby’s demands. Perhaps in this way the greatest irony of the schedule versus demand debate is that the choice between these two philosophies of parenting is usually not determined by the parent at all.