Have you got Rhythm? Or has Routine got you?

(First published in JUNO magazine)

Have you got that baby into a routine yet?”
My skin crawls at that question. I object to it on so many levels: have I imposed my way of being onto my baby? Do we live a fixed pattern dictated by someone else? No, no no! But we’ve got rhythm.

I like to be free, yet I live in a world that values order and structure. I am not a regular person and my son was not a standard issue baby; I am not sure how many people are. And yet so much of what is offered as guidance to new parents asks them to abandon their own instincts or observations and follow a fail-proof, step-by-step plan to success written by an expert. It’s scientific, so it must be good, mustn’t it? You must have a routine, otherwise… Otherwise what? Otherwise you’ll have to think for yourself?
When I started out on the mothering road I didn’t go near the infamous “Contented Little Baby” book or anything else remotely similar: it went totally against my own nature to be that rigidly structured. I needed guidance, not a timetable. I like flexibility, the opportunity to see what each day presents me with and the chance to adapt to and integrate that, not ignore it because NOW and no other time is nap-time.
And then reality hit this idealist square in the face. It took me by my hair and shook me awake, every night, in the form of a waking baby. My little boy who until 4 months old had revelled in flexibility, suddenly began waking multiple times a night – and continued doing so, night after night, week after week, month after month. Muddle-headed from exhaustion, I had to re-evaluate. I was forced to confront this resistance to routine and its implications in my own life. Reflection led me to see that my son seemed to be literally crying out for more rhythm to our lives so that he could orientate himself in space and time. It was on reading two wonderful books that I began to create more balance in both our lives. Rahina Baldwin’s You are Your Child’s First Teacher and Elizabeth Pantley’s No-Cry Sleep Solution brought home to me the importance of helping your child to establish rhythm in their day. It has been a powerful learning curve for me understanding the difference between routine and rhythm and the difference between guiding and imposing structure on your children. But is that just playing with words, I hear you ask, and what is the difference any way?
I would define a routine as a schedule which is set externally, usually based on external authority or advice. Especially popular in the last 50 years or so have been scientific routines based (supposedly) on objective scientific fact, rational and impersonal: babies should be fed every 4 hours, sleep in a crib and drink 8 fluid ounces of carefully balanced formula milk, wean at 4 or 6 months and not before or much after, potty train at 18 months, bed at 7pm etc. These systems were devised for an average baby, which I have yet to meet. They are based on the judgements of others and the fashions of the time. They do not take into account the individual’s idiosyncrasies, physical build, character type and living environment. They are a one-size-fits-all blueprint into which the individual must fit himself.
Rhythms on the other hand reflect and are propelled by nature: breathing in and out, eating and defecating, sleeping and waking, menstruation, the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the changing seasons, the passing of years. Each has its own ebb and flow; they are not static. To take just one example, menstruation, whilst often 28 days, is affected by stress or the hormones of other women that we are close to, and so is rarely precise in its arrival. Our own nature is rooted in its own internal rhythms and immersed in an external world of nature’s rhythms.

 Humans need rhythm to function healthily and achieve balance, indeed this is the basic principle behind many philosophies of health such as acupuncture or homeopathy, in biology it is know as homeostasis. Rhythm can be defined as a self-regulating system which fluctuates, tending towards equilibrium because of the constant feedback received from both itself and its environment. Routine, on the other hand, is pre-designated, man-made and arbitrary. Rather than seeing daily life as a set of alienated actions all requiring precision, as routine dictates, a rhythmic approach encourages us to look holistically at our days and the patterns woven into them by our basic physical needs and other activities requiring balance. It is the difference between creating an original piece of art and following a paint by numbers: one takes more thought and effort, but the result is infinitely more rewarding. In approaching our lives rhythmically we allow ourselves creativity and complexity, in routine we require systematic repetition of disjointed actions which are to be judged externally.
Take two babies: one is breastfed, home-birthed, he wakes and feeds when hungry, sleeps when tired, he is, even at this very young age guided by his own and his mother’s rhythms. There is no one to tell her what she must or must not do with her new child. He is as sensitive to his environment as it is to him. The other baby, born into a bright hospital is brought to his mother to feed every four hours, then returned to the hospital nursery. If he cries before then he is left, he cannot be hungry as four hours have not yet passed. He must learn to sleep and wait to be summonsed to feed once more at the appointed time. Neither is right or wrong. But if these two differing approaches are continued, in each decision which shapes their daily existence, the resulting children are sure to be quite different.
We live in a world run by routines – to question them is to question far more than how frequently a baby should feed – it is to question the very fabric of our society. Timetables ensure order and structure, and we are moving more towards this as the man-made world gets more complex. The thinking behind rigid scheduling for babies is that they become civilised early on, and so not interrupt our sacred adult schedules as little as possible. In doing this, however, they learn quickly to follow external markers rather than being atuned to their own inner drives. As do their parents, who learn to look outside for advice on how to manage every fiber of their child’s being. Schools, hospitals and work places are built around routines and timetables rather than natural rhythms, so it is seen as preparing the child for the world to break its own sense of rhythm. 

Certainly we all need to be able to interact and function together within our society and environment, but to do so at the expense of ourselves is dangerous: the inability of the body to self-regulate itself leads to stress, disease and insecurity. As a culture we currently focus on the external prompts (timetables and clocks) to govern our most basic functions of eating, sleeping and excreting. Think of the child told to wait to pee until break time, or to eat until the bell goes for lunch. To learn to trust internal rhythms is seen as moving towards uncontrollable urges and appetites, chaos and disorder, which as a culture we have a strong distrust of. Many of us are so used to controlling and ordering ourselves and our world, that to trust nature’s ability to self regulate is anathema to us.
Establishing rhythm with children is crucial, creating familiarity and a sense of their place in the world so that they can relax into it as they incarnate. A lack of rhythm causes disharmony which is experienced as stress for the individual and can be expressed in terms of unhappiness, behaviour problems or issues with eating or sleeping and even illness. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the skill of listening to and honouring their own rhythm within a structured and balanced family life. We can do this through our own example. We can show them the rhythms of the natural world, with which young children instinctively have such an affinity: pointing out that the sun is gone, and so it is time to sleep. Breathing practices and meditation, dance and music, looking at art or watching the waves breaking on the shore are all ways which we experience and enjoy rhythm in a tangible way. Through them we learn to reconnect with our own unique rhythms as well as the rhythms of others around us and our environment, allowing us to become more conscious of the rhythm which exists in all areas of life.
Things to be mindful of when establishing rhythms:
-sleeping- quiet before bed time, having a predictable routine, observing the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars.
-eating- regular times, watch for cues for hunger, offering a range of seasonal foods, textures and flavours.
-movement – must be balanced with stillness, regular body stimulation for the physical being such as running, dancing, jumping, massage.
-celebrating festivals marking the passing of seasons and key events, noting the rhythms of the year.
-establishing simple but meaningful family traditions and ways of doing things to add familiarity and a sense of belonging.
-plenty of experience of rhythmic activity: dance, music, and experience of nature.
It is important to note that rhythms can soon become unconscious, and habitual routines in themselves. It is always useful to observe, or have someone else observe our habitual actions so that we might bring them to consciousness once more and re-evaluate their effectiveness for our or our child’s current stage of development. Each stage of life has its own rhythms and it is not healthy for us to carry one past its own useful stage just for the sake of comfort. This is, perhaps, the real meaning of weaning. Each stage of development is a new weaning from one comfort zone to another, but based on observation not on external development charts, calendars or clocks. An easy way to note if one is following a routine rather than a rhythm is that a routine is usually driven by ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ and watching others; rhythm on internal watching and listening.
In the end it comes down to our intention for our children and ourselves. If our intention, which modern education and work places seem to suggest, is for unconscious action to follow the dictats of authority, then routines are perfect, and the younger the better so that people do not learn to question them. If our intention is healthy, self-reliant beings, then our rootedness in our environment and our ability to observe, respond and adapt are crucial. There are two tides in our culture at the moment, one towards autonomy and the other automation. However, the autonomy camp often takes laissez faire to the extreme, rejecting compulsion and force, but putting nothing in its place. To do so is, in my opinion, to act against, not with, our natures and Nature itself.
I wish you well with finding your own rhythm, and helping your child to find theirs.
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