Hail Spock! Leader of the Baby-led Schedule Revolution

Spock, Benjamin M., “The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care (9th ed)”. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012

Maier, T., “Dr. Spock, An American Life”. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1998

You Say You Want a Revolution?

Vladimir Putin and Czar Nicholas II walk into a bar and order a bottle of vodka.  After the third or fourth shot, Nicholas begins to reminisce:

“My Okhrana (secret police) would do anything I asked. They were totally loyal to me.”

“Your Excellency,” Putin replies  “my KGB is just as loyal as your beloved Okhrana.”

“Ah, but I could send my enemies to katorga (prison camp) with a wave of my hand!” Nicholas protested.

Putin is unfazed. “Your Excellency, I have just as many enemies in my gulags.”

Czar ruminates over his vodka. “Well, at least I had the best 70 proof vodka in the world…”

Putin springs to his feet. “Your Excellency, today Russian vodka is 75 proof!!!”

“For this,” the Czar smirks, “you had a revolution?”

Ben Spock, Revolutionary

Spock. True Revolutionary

The point of the story is that political revolutions don’t change things all that much. Cultural revolutions are more uncommon than political revolutions, and they are rarely led by individuals. Spock’s was such a revolution. Spock’s “Baby and Child Care” upended the entire enterprise of raising children. Spock raised up the infant and child from the status of mute object of parenting to the subject of parenting, actors to be listened to and respected. Put that in your gulag and persecute it, Vlady!

The Cultural Context

Spock came along in at a very particular time, and in a particular cultural context that was essential for making his revolution possible. Fifty years earlier, in 1900, an Austrian neurologist named Sigmund Freud published Die Traumdeutung (On the Interpretation of Dreams), launching a thought revolution that to this day influences the way we think about ourselves.

Spock underwent Freudian psychoanalysis after medical school at Columbia. Through analysis, Spock learned that his own insecurities and anxieties were the result of his rigid upbringing in New Haven, Connecticut. Spock’s mother forced her children to sleep on a porch, even in winter. Spock and his siblings were subjected to strict rules and schedules. Though Baby and Child Care never says so explicitly, Spock’s philosophy is heavily influenced by Freudianism.


At mid-century, the cultural ground was prepared for suggestions that leaders could be challenged and their authority questioned. The reasons for this are complicated and require a book-length discussion. It’s possible that the experience of two world wars and a post-war baby boom spawned a libertarian uprising in which ordinary people cast off traditional authority and began to assert self-rule and self-ownership.

Mere poser

Spock Steps Up

So when Spock entered the stage advising mothers “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do,” he was delivering a message mothers were ready to hear. Drawing on his experience in psychoanalysis, Spock suggested that mothers trust their own instincts, and not to bow to so-called experts, including himself. However, especially in early editions of the book, Spock never lets go of the authoritarian impulse to tell mothers how to raise their children. He insists throughout that mothers should listen to the pediatrician. I credit my mother for pointing out that Spock begins his book by telling mothers they know more than they think they do; then he describes in exquisite detail all the things mothers don’t know, like how to fold a diaper.

Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.

In the 1950’s and 60’s Spock began to draw the ire of his colleagues for publishing articles in Ladies Home Journal. It was thought that a physician should not lower himself to publishing in the lay press. If he should write at all, a physician should publish in scholarly journals only. Imagine what Spock’s stodgy colleagues would think of physician bloggers!


Spock got himself into even more trouble with his colleagues by his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. He was blamed (incorrectly, in my view) with creating a generation of unpatriotic children raised in permissive homes. Of course, even a cursory reading of Spock reveals no advocacy of permissiveness. Nevertheless, in later editions, Spock felt compelled by his critics to emphasize that parents set limits and enforce them. It’s clear to me that Spock never thought otherwise about the importance of parental limit-setting. He would edit subsequent editions as well to placate feminists who criticized the book for suggesting that mothers stay at home with their children. Spock’s compulsion to please his critics is a failure on his part, in my view. He had authored a book that was more popular than the works of Shakespeare, and sold more copies than any volume other than the Bible. He didn’t need to bow to anyone.


Spock Wins

If  there were only one contribution that “Baby and Child Care” made to the modern world of parenting (and their were actually several), it would be the introduction of “on-demand” infant feeding. Spock made what in retrospect is an uncontroversial suggestion: babies eat when they are hungry. Babies grow best when parents obey hunger signals and feed the baby when she appears hungry. On demand feeding was in fact controversial at the time because the “official recommendation” of scientific pediatrics was strict schedule feeding. Eventually, on demand feeding won the endorsement of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But schedules and routines never went away entirely and are with us until today. In fact, most experts (present company included) recommend routine and consistency as pillars of health and well-being for infants and children. Perhaps it is this uneasy balance between on-demand and strict scheduling that gives rise to our contemporary division between “baby-led” and “parent-led” camps.

Because I’m a lumper and not a splitter, I don’t see much of a distinction between the two groups. I agree, based on my training and experience, that routine and consistency are most conducive to health and well-being of children. I also acknowledge that you cannot force a baby to sleep who is not sleepy. That’s just a fact of life. I consider it cruel and unusual to force a tired baby to stay awake. I would go further and say that so-called “baby-led schedule” advocates agree that routine is important, and so-called “parent-led schedule” advocates acknowledge that babies are not digital timers. “Combination schedule” advocates only offer recommendations that differ in style, but not in substance.

In future posts I hope to delve a bit deeper into the various schools of thought about schedules.