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Early years

02nd Jul 2022

Opinion: The obsession with routines and sleep training for babies is weird – and stressful

Did YOU feel stressed about getting your baby into a "routine"?

Trine Jensen-Burke

When I had both my babies (in Norway), it was never really a question of whether or not I should breastfeed.

There, everyone (or at least 98 percent or so of new mums) breastfeed – pretty much without exception. It is just the done thing. You have a full year’s maternity leave, plenty of time to get used to this new normal – and no rush about having weaned baby onto bottles before returning to work.

It is also widely accepted and just the norm, I guess, that because all new mums live in the same ‘breastfeeding bubble,’ so that for those first few weeks and months, life really is all about baby.

There are no (or at least very few) routines, no-one hassles you about whether or not your baby is a ‘good sleeper’ or rigid sleep schedules, because, as everyone who has breastfed knows, feeding pretty much happens on baby’s demand, who really doesn’t give a toss whether it is night or day, or if you have to be somewhere or meet someone.

This was certainly the case with my first baby, where I pretty much spent my entire maternity leave in Oslo, hung out with friends with babies and other new mums from the local health station (that we had been paired up with as we all had babies born around the same time). When my little boy was born though, we were more or less living between Norway and Ireland, and despite giving birth to him in Oslo, we spent large chunks of that first year here in Dublin.

And much as Norway and Ireland are pretty similar culturally in many ways, when it came to breastfeeding and breastfeeding mums, I found things to be rather different.

Obsession with sleep and routines

Here, not only had many mums with young babies I encountered already abandoned breastfeeding by the time their babies approached the four-five month mark, but there was also a lot more talk of and stress surrounding sleep and nap times and routines. Often, I found this was the first thing someone would ask me when they saw me with the baby. “Is he a good sleeper?” “Is he sleeping through the night yet for you?” “Ah, you must be dying to get him into a little routine now, aren’t you?”

This, I must admit, was all a little alien to me, and just seemed to add a lot of stress and expectations to a time where, really, these should be avoided as much as possible. I mean; why were mums expecting babies to sleep tough the night so soon?! In my experience, breastfed babies wake up for feeds (and snuggles) often, and I can’t remember ever being asked about this or feeling like this was something I needed to train her out of on my first baby.

Personally, I often had both my babies in the bed with me for the majority of their first year, as did so many of my fellow Norwegian mamas from what they told me. Meaning, of course, that the babies would just feed during the night whenever they wanted and needed – all I needed to do was move my nightdress to the side and let them find my boob, and voila; I could just go back to sleep.

Attending baby groups and chatting to other new mums here when I was on maternity leave with my baby boy, I found this sleep- and routine stress to be a little manic, and have no problem seeing how experts now attribute the low breastfeeding rates in the UK down to just this.

According to a recent report published in the Lancet, the UK has the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the world, with only 1 in 200 women breastfeeding their children after they reach their first birthday. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommend just breast milk for six months, with breastfeeding to form part of a baby’s diet up to two years of age.

“Incompatible with breastfeeding”

Speaking recently at the British Science Festival, Amy Brown of Swansea University said not enough was being done to support new mothers to breastfeed. In particular, she said, advice given to mothers to impose a feeding regime whereby babies don’t feed frequently, contributed to why many women felt that they weren’t producing enough milk and abandoned breastfeeding.

“One of the key things about breastfeeding is that you have to feed the baby very regularly,” Brown told the Guardian. “That’s easily every two hours.”

But, she says, that doesn’t chime with common advice.

“We are told by so-called experts that you should get your baby in a feeding routine and your baby should not wake up at night,” said Brown. “But that is really incompatible with breastfeeding. If you try and feed them less, you make less milk. You need to feed at night to make enough milk.”

Elizabeth Duff at the National Childbirth Trust, agreed that frequent feeding is necessary. “It is obviously easier for everyone if they begin to sleep more during the night, but if you are fully breastfeeding you will have to feed for at least once and probably two or three times during the night,” she said. “The daily patterns will come, but it won’t be in the first few days or the very first weeks.”

What do YOU think, mums? Did you feel stressed about getting your baby to sleep through the night or get them on a routine early? Why did YOU (if you did) abandon breastfeeding? Let us know in the comments or tweet us at @Herfamilydotie