Why isn't there more research into parenting regimes for infants?
The Guardian, Saturday 13 December 2008
When a baby is small, particularly if it's the first one, parents tend to verge on the doctrinaire regarding the best parenting approach, falling into two camps: strict routine (the schedulers) or infant-led (the huggers).
Holidaying friends with conflicting methods risk lifelong schism, yet hardly anyone bases their view on science. So what do the studies show?
The most definitive was done recently by British and Danish psychologists. They identified a sample of pregnant London mothers who intended to follow a parent-led, scheduled routine. For example, many hoped to get the baby into a cot as soon as possible, feeding and sleeping to a timetable, and planning to delay responses to crying, to teach self-soothing.
By contrast, another sample was also studied, who adopted the hugger approach. They would be keeping the baby in the bed rather than a cot, and feeding on demand. There was also a sample of Copenhagen mothers who fell between these two nurturing plans. The samples were followed until three months of age. Compared with the hugger mothers, the schedulers spent half as much time holding their babies and were four times less likely to make contact with it when fussing or crying. Twice as many schedulers had given up breastfeeding when the baby reached three months of age (85% v 37%). The results for the Copenhagen mothers generally fell between the two, though veering towards the huggers.
The consequences of this differing care were considerable. At all three ages when studied (10 days, five weeks and three months), the babies with scheduler mothers spent 50% more time fussing or crying. For example, at five weeks, the scheduler babies fussed/cried for 121 minutes of the 24 hours, compared with 82 minutes for the hugger babies.
If you take the view that persistent fussing and crying are undesirable for a baby - because they are signs of distress - then this is evidence that the scheduler regime is bad for a baby's wellbeing. If the method really does cause a 50% greater prevalence of fussing and crying in three-month-olds, innumerable other studies suggest that such distress often presages emotional insecurity, hyperactivity and conduct disorders in later childhood.
However, if scheduling was bad news for the babies, it was not all bad for their mothers. At three months (although not before that age), scheduler babies were more likely to sleep for five or more hours a night without waking or crying - significantly longer than among the huggers. However, this scheduling benefit may have been illusory. If the scheduler babies were sleeping in cots in another room, how confident could their mothers be that their babies had not woken up? Nearly all the hugger babies (84%) were in bed with their mothers and waking or crying would rarely be missed. The researchers concluded that the scheduled babies were probably waking more than their mothers realised, casting doubt on the finding.
It is pathetic that this is the only serious study of the question. We also need to know what the consequences of different regimes are in later life. For there is good evidence that as the child gets older, scheduling is increasingly effective for creating good sleep. So it may be helpful to encourage such "self-regulation" when the child is one or two, not at all good to do so at three months. But it is also possible that children who keep getting into the parental bed until middle childhood are ultimately more secure and creative. Why is this issue not at the top of the psychology profession's research agenda?
• Hugger v Scheduler study: St James-Roberts, I et al, 2006, Pediatrics, 117(6), pp e1146-55.