Advocates of strict routines include famous names such as Gina Ford, and many parents swear by her methods, but here at Fundamentally Children, we believe a more balanced approach can be better in the long run and is more realistic for families with other commitments.
An example to illustrate the benefits of routine is the build up to bedtime for young babies. If the same routine is followed night after night, (e.g. bath, bottle, story/song, lights out), the baby will soon learn the order of events and (everything else being equal) be comfortable and happy moving from one activity to the next, and (hopefully) settle down quickly into a restful sleep. This will benefit everyone: parents get an evening to themselves, and time to relax, or to spend time with older children and babies who have a good night’s sleep will be more likely to feed well and to respond positively to the events of the next day.
But what about the fact that life isn’t ‘routine’? Babies who have always been put to sleep in a blacked-out, silent room after a bath and a story will not cope very well with disruptions to this routine. For example, visits to friends when they have to share a room with someone who is afraid of the dark, or in a place where it is impossible to keep all sound out of the room. What about holidays, or even just weekends when parents want to relax and enjoy the lack of routine?
Controlled crying as a method of teaching a child to settle herself is an example of a baby learning a new routine. Previously, when a baby cried, it got some form of reinforcement for that crying (food, a cuddle, attention), with controlled crying, the quickest way to achieve the goal (of getting the child to settle herself) is to blitz it. If you decide to try controlled crying, the worst thing you can do is to do it one night and not the next.
To clarify this, think about what the baby learns. If he cries, he normally gets a response quite quickly. Then the parents decide to try controlled crying. One night, the baby cries, expecting to be attended to quite quickly. When this doesn’t happen, the child cries again, then maybe again and again. Eventually, the baby is so tired that he goes to sleep. The next night, the baby should settle himself a little quicker and the same the following night. After a while, he will no longer expect that someone will come, and just settle himself. However, if one night someone does ‘give in’ (before the ‘routine’ of settling herself is well established), he will continue to associate crying at bedtime with getting attention and it will take much longer for him to forget to expect someone. The baby will be confused as there will be no pattern that he can see which determines whether or not someone will attend to him when he cries.
When controlled crying is successful, the baby learns that after a bedtime routine, no one will come and pick him up if she cries, whereas the rest of the day, crying will get attention and he can use it to communicate. When the baby is confused, he will continue to cry for attention at night, maybe even with more vigour than normal, as he doesn’t understand why she isn’t being responded to. Thus the undesirable behaviour hasn’t been unlearnt, and in future, any break to the routine will take longer to recover from. However, parental instinct is very powerful and if the crying makes the parents feel that something is really wrong with their child and they need to tend to her, it’s not going to destroy the chance of the child ever being able to settle herself.
Flexibility within a routine can be a positive thing. Experiments by B.F. Skinner as far back as the 1960’s showed that whilst routines can be learnt quickly if the order of events never changes, the memory of the routines is more long lasting if the odd disruption to the routine is experienced. So whilst a new routine will take a lot longer to learn if it is not carried out consistently, the odd disruption to an established routine can help the child in the long run.
If, once a routine is well established, occasional breaks to the routine are introduced, the routine remains the norm, but the baby is able to cope with variations (e.g. going to visit friends/family for the night) without losing the default routine. So whilst Gina Ford and the other advocates of strict routine will provide the majority of parents with a useful framework for their infants, dogged following of such approaches may cause as many problems as they resolve, especially for families whose life is not planned with military precision.
Thankfully everyone is different – or wouldn’t life be dull? So it follows that some families work well within schedules, others prefer less structure. The same applies for children. Some children need to be in bed by 7pm every night or they are tired and difficult the next day, others can cope with later nights and are naturally more flexible. Thomas and Chess carried out some important research in the 1970s which showed that children thrive (develop well and have fewer mental health issues in later life) when they ‘fit’ into their environment. This is important for parents as temperaments differ and two busy working parents who need to schedule their lives around their jobs will struggle with a baby who doesn’t ‘do’ routine. Laid back parents may get frustrated with a baby who can’t cope with the lack of structure that they enjoy. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, but by understanding why routines work or not, and their own views on routines, parents should be able to make more informed decisions about their own parenting and family life and feel more positive about their abilities as a parent. A happy, confident parent is one of the best starts a child can have in life, routine or not.