Do regimented or relaxed routines make a happy, reassured child or is it better to go with the flow?

We tried both philosophies and found that each had their advantages and disadvantages! So we asked Debbie Lewis, professional coach, what it is that children really want and need.

Is baby the boss?

At my antenatal classes, I always remember the teacher saying that she thought the best adjusted kids were ones from travellers’ families. The more relaxed way of life, free of the neuroses that seems part and parcel of today’s parenting style, meant they weren’t stressed out because of their parents’ constant state of anxiety. The ‘go with the flow’ attitude sounded like an ideal way of bringing up a child.

When we started life as a family after Holly’s birth, we just meandered along. The childcare advice said to feed on demand, to not expect miracles in the first few months and to grab sleep as and when your child did. The emphasis indeed seemed to be very much on letting the child decide the way forward. As a first-time mum, with no previous experience of babies, I thought this was normal … until things started going wrong.

Do newborns have bedtimes?

Holly had no set nap times. Her morning nap was sometimes around 8.30am and 9.00am, when she’d fall asleep on my bed.

Her afternoon nap coincided with our return journey from town or from a walk, when she was in her pushchair. I would leave her to continue napping for as long as she needed to – after all, she knew what she needed – didn’t she?

At night time, since she always awoke for a feed at 11pm, we saw no reason for her to go to bed until then. And newborns don’t have bedtimes … do they? We would strap her into one of those bouncy chairs that mums always swear by for calming their babies. We’d set it on a gentle vibrate and, if she got upset, would increase the vibration until the poor thing looked like she was having a fit. Unsurprisingly, this only made her more distressed! She never liked that chair and we ended up throwing it away in disgust.

Meals on squeals

Holly’s behaviour started deteriorating. Granted, she had transient lactose intolerance which meant she spent five hours a day screaming. I was becoming ragged at the edges and, if she napped for hours on end, I would just let her sleep as I couldn’t bear the non-stop howling if I woke her up. This meant she wasn’t tired enough for bed at night but was still extremely grouchy. For the first three months, every meal I cooked was gulped down in indigestible lumps as my husband and I tried to console her. We all ended up exhausted, irritable and thinking that, really, our relaxed parenting wasn’t going that well.

One day, we decided to jack in our happy-go-lucky approach. I can’t remember how – that’s how befuddled my brain was! I’d heard about Gina Ford and her strict timetables for raising children but didn’t fancy such an extreme route, although a friend of mine swore by her. My husband and I decided to try giving Holly a proper bedtime as, even if she needed a feed at 11pm, we would still be able to eat and spend time together in peace. We started our own night-time ‘routine’ of bath, bottle and bed, which worked reasonably well, after a few days of adjusting. Finally we got our evenings back!

This way or that?

Daytimes weren’t as easy. So accustomed was Holly to sleeping in her pushchair that she would howl the house down as soon as I tried putting her down for a nap in her cot. Parents and friends started adding their advice too, telling me either to keep going back in every two minutes to console her or to leave her to scream herself to sleep, turning the radio or vacuum up loudly so I couldn’t hear her distress. Neither felt right. I persisted in the end with an uneasy compromise of the two – checking on her every 5-10 minutes and nervously vacuuming or holding my hands over my ears the rest of the time. Within two weeks, things were better and she had a semblance of a proper routine.

I started reading parenting manuals to see if we were on the right track. This is where confusion is rife – no one seems to agree with anyone else. One person says a child needs a highly structured life, and that parents should give up their needs to meet that, while others say that a compromise can be struck. We saw this with our acquaintances – one friend of the family could apparently hand her babysitter a book at page nine for instructions on how to deal with her child while she was out. Another mother I knew let her two-year-old, from birth, stay up till 10pm, get up at 5am and breastfeed on demand, every two hours if necessary.

Have we created an rigid toddler?

As Holly has got older, we have continued her routine, with minor adjustments dictated by her age (dropping the morning sleep, etc). She has actually become so attached to her routine that, if we get a babysitter or relative to look after her, she can tell them exactly what comes next and chide them if they do things slightly out of synch. While this is kind of cute, it does worry us somewhat. Have we created an anal toddler who can’t cope with anything new or different in her life? How can we make her more relaxed about subtle changes to her routine?

I sometimes urge my husband to do things differently. “At weekends, why don’t we bath her first and then let her have her bottle downstairs before taking her up for books?” I ask him eagerly. But he’s scared of anything that might take us back to the days and nights of interminable howling. “It’s working for us so why change it?” he demands. I explain that I don’t want our daughter growing up so inflexible that she can’t enjoy life because she’s constantly clock-watching. That it’s OK to take a break from the routine of everyday life once in a while.

I guess my long-term concern is that this routine, which saved us from unbearable chaos when Holly was young, will cause her and us problems later in life. Can such strict adherence to schedules and times make a child too inflexible? Will it determine Holly’s future personality in the same way as, perhaps, a child from a more easy-going home might have a more relaxed approached to life? I suppose only time will tell but, since the going is reasonably good, why rock the boat?