stop the clock

Relax and let your baby find his own rhythm in the world.

By the time Lisa Hanauer gave birth to her daughter, Gemma, three years ago, she had read all the parenting books. Some claimed that no matter how determined you are to time a newborn's patterns and needs by the clock, he will eventually find his own innate feeding and sleeping patterns. Others promised bliss if rigid feeding schedules are followed. Hanauer decided to simply follow her instincts.

"There were so many schools of thought that said you could program babies and get them to sleep through the night at 8 weeks," says Hanauer, who simply followed Gemma's cues for when she wanted to eat or sleep. "I'm 38, and I don't sleep through the night. It's not her job to be convenient — we invited her here."

Highly scheduled eating and sleeping

Still, there are hundreds of thousands of new parents who believe their infants should conform to a regular schedule that fits into adult needs — and many of them are following the doctrines of parenting guru Gary Ezzo and his On Becoming Babywise books, co-authored with Robert Bucknam, M.D., a pediatrician (Multnomah Publishers, 1995, 1998). Even though the Babywise philosophy was born from Ezzo's Christian parenting programs now instituted in more than 6,000 churches and 95 countries, these books are designed for the mainstream public.

Babywise advocates "parent-directed feeding," a routine that the authors claim creates 8-week-old babies who peacefully sleep for seven to eight hours straight — with no wails for food. This is accomplished by establishing a predictable feeding time, wake time and sleep routine. To get there, parents must limit their newborn's feedings to every 21/2–3 hours, followed by a period of wake time and a precise 1–11/2-hour nap. By eight weeks, according to Babywise, parents can drop the night feeding, even if a baby cries. To help your child learn how to get a good night's sleep, his tears can be ignored for about 35 minutes if he is clean and fed, Ezzo asserts. You should, however, check on him every 15 minutes.

Because you must keep your child on the breast for a full half-hour each time he nurses regardless of whether he wants to, Ezzo says your child will get plenty of calories during the day. Besides, he says, babies like schedules. "Scheduling gets rid of variables — it eliminates a baby's insecurity about what's next," Ezzo explains.

Baby knows best

But orderliness may not always be safe or healthy. Warren Rosenfeld, M.D., chairman of pediatrics at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., says some babies may not be able to go a full night without milk — while others will. "Some babies' stomach capacities at 8 weeks may still be too small, and if you don't feed them in the night when they cry, they might not be able to make those nutrients up in the morning, giving them inadequate calorie intake," says Rosenfeld, citing dehydration as another important potential outcome. "They're waking up because they're hungry, not to watch Jay Leno."

Rosenfeld says babies also know when they're full and shouldn't be forced to eat more than they want. This kind of thinking is in line with another popular parenting model called attachment parenting, which essentially shuns schedules and advocates watching your baby's signals for feeding times.

Gaelen Billingsley, director of Northwest Attachment Parenting in Port Orchard, Wash., says that babies know best and that delaying nursing is cruel and unhealthy. "If you wait until the baby's starving, you're teaching him that he has no control over his eating," Billingsley says, adding that most breast milk is digested after just half an hour, so babies are often hungry again quickly.

Scheduling is not necessarily black and white; there are shades. Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W., a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., devoted to promoting healthy development in the first three years, says you can phase in a loose schedule — but only well after the newborn stage.

"You have to see the first three months as a time of great change and adaptation for the baby," Lerner says. "During that time, you need to respond to their cues immediately. Then you can begin to do what feels right to you."

"Sequencing" is also a middle-ground step that works for many new parents; it means that your baby eats, sleeps, bathes, plays and gets his diaper changed in a certain order every day but not at any particular time. "Children depend so heavily on routine," says Lerner, "and even at a young age, this practice lets them start to anticipate what is next." For instance, when a baby wakes up, you feed him, then change his diaper, then there is some playtime, perhaps a walk, another feeding and then probably a nap. Even this routine need not be rigidly adhered to, however. "I don't think parents should be overly concerned about doing the same thing every day," Lerner adds.

Regardless of the patterns or routines you develop, babies will get into a rhythm with their eating, sleeping and waking times. And most start to sleep through the night naturally at about 2 or 3 months of age. "It's not fair to put a baby on a schedule that's too rigid," says Rosenfeld. "They don't have the biological maturity to handle too many demands on them."