New parents who buy baby books and browse the internet may come to believe, reasonably, that there are two basic “philosophies” of sleep schedules for babies: parent-led and baby-led. It’s true that there are different philosophies out there (including combination philosophies), but no philosophy ever made a baby schedule.
“Schedule” is a funny word. In English the word schedule implies a scheduler, someone who makes the schedule. I explain to my clients that sleep schedules are a lot less scheduled than parents care to admit.
The philosophy I share with my clients is based on my belief that sleep schedules are a type of spontaneous order: The baby sleeps and eats at (roughly) the same time every day. It looks like a schedule! In fact, it is a schedule. But there was no scheduler.
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I’ll get to my account of where I believe the two philosophies came from. But first, a word about the tendency to divide the world into groups.
Lumpers and Splitters
There world is divided into two parts: People who divide the world into two parts and people who don’t. That’s a joke, of course. But like many jokes, it reveals a truth about human nature. Some people are “splitters” and some are “lumpers”.
Splitters tend to see the world as divided up into categories. The task of the splitter is to find the appropriate category for everything. A splitter asks “how is this thing different from that thing?”
The world is divided into two parts: People who divide the world into two parts, and people who don’t.
Lumpers tend to see the world as a series of connections among things. The task of the lumper is to find ways to lump everything into as few categories as possible. A lumper asks “how is this thing like that thing?”
I am a lumper by nature. I don’t know how or why I got this way. For me, lumping is the most intellectually-satisfying way to make sense of the world. It informs the way I look at sleep schedules. Having said that, I don’t “lump together” the various sleep schedule philosophies into one group. Rather, I believe that the various philosophies arrive at the same end-point: the child (and parents) settle into a pattern that appears to be a schedule. Babies contribute to the development of a schedule, and parents play a role as well, but there is an important third party that plays a crucial role as well. I’ll get to that at the end of this post.
Baby Sleep Schedules: Parent-led vs. Baby-led
Prior to the 19th century, nobody thought much about baby sleep schedules, either parent-led, or baby-led. The concepts simply didn’t exist. All a mother had to guide her was the advice and counsel of experienced mothers in her community, first and foremost her own mother. Therefore, if one could say that there were such a thing as child-rearing philosophies, these were traditional philosophies. That is to say they were based on tradition: familial and cultural.
In mid-19th century, coincident with the creation of pediatrics as a medical specialty, there emerged what could be called the “era of scientific parenting”. Pediatrics came into being to solve two problems: infant mortality and malnutrition. By the middle of the 20th century, both problems had been largely solved in the developed world, leaving pediatrics, temporarily, with no reason for being.
The Origins of the Parent-led Schedule
One of the giants of the early days scientific parenting was Luther Emmett Holt, who in 1894 published “The Care and Feeding of Children“. Originally intended as a teaching manual for nurses in New York City, Holt’s book quickly spread in popularity to the reading public. It takes the form of an extended FAQ, with questions and short answers.
The section on sleep in Holt’s book is remarkably brief. Holt’s advice is clearly prescriptive, particularly with respect to feeding and sleeping:
How can a baby be taught to be regular in its habits of feeding and sleeping?
By always feeding at regular intervals and putting to sleep at exactly the same time every day and evening.
When should regular training be begun?
During the first week of life. (p 109)
Holt may not have invented parent-led schedules, but the publication of his book gave the imprimatur of the medical establishment to the method.
The Baby-led Revolution
Holt’s prescriptions lasted about 60 years, until the publication in 1946 of a book called “The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care” by a Connecticut pediatrician named Benjamin Spock.
“Trust Yourself. You know more than you think you do.” With this famous opening line, Spock fired the first shot at medical establishment prescriptions about feeding and sleeping. Spock counseled parents to trust their own instincts and to pay attention to the baby and her signals. It’s difficult to imagine just how controversial this idea was in the mid-20th century. These ideas were so dangerous to his own standing in the medical establishment that Spock couches his recommendations in extremely cautious language. In his chapter called “Schedules”, Spock begins by saying
“Your doctor will prescribe the baby’s schedule on the basis of his needs, and you should consult him about any changes. The following sections are mainly a general discussion of what schedules are all about…”
But Spock then goes on to argue, persuasively in my view, that baby-led feeding and sleeping habits pre-date “scientific pediatrics” and have been in fact the way babies have fed and slept from the beginning of time until Holt. Spock advocates an essentially baby-led feeding and sleeping schedule, and he endured a barrage of criticism because of it. He nevertheless prevailed, and until the modern resurgence of the parent-led schedule movement, Spock reigned.
It’s human nature to see a pattern and to conclude that someone created the pattern. Such is the case with sleep schedules. By a few months of age, most babies tend to sleep and eat at about the same times every day. Some people believe that parents were essential to creation of the schedule. Not coincidentally, these tend to be people who favor parent-led methods of child rearing. Others, who favor baby-led methods, believe that the baby made the schedule.
Both camps ignore the crucial role played by light. From a very early age, babies start to sleep longer at night, and to stay awake longer throughout the day. How do they do this? The light that strikes their eyes causes them to synchronize their sleep-wake cycles to night and day. We get sleepy at night and alert during the day. All the baby needs to do to synchronize this “circadian rhythm” to day and night is to see light during the day, and to see darkness at night.
So parents and babies rely on the crucial participation of a third partner: the sun. Little babies wake up when they are hungry and then fall back asleep, but with time, they develop a circadian rhythm that is tuned to the day-night cycle. They sleep longer during the night and less during the day. The sun helps push them into a schedule, as much or more than they schedule themselves, and more than parents schedule them.
The system isn’t perfect. No system is. The schedule gets thrown off. Babies have busy days, they get overstimulated. They get sick and need more comfort. But the basic schedule remains unchanged and so do the influences that created the schedule.
How do you create a good sleep/feed schedule? The best advice I can give is to stop trying to make a schedule and allow the schedule to make itself.