Parenting: the evidence

My son is nine weeks old now and I’m tired. I know that’s a given at this stage of life. But I have this persistent feeling that I should be getting more done. Life doesn’t stop when a baby’s born; there’s still a house to clean, bills to be paid, brains to stimulate (mine as well as his).

The thought of getting him onto a routine seemed really attractive. I borrowed a suitable book from the library and started the mental preparation for it. There were lots of useful ideas in it, but I had some misgivings, mainly about the frequency of breastfeeds suggested for his age. The author also admitted that the book was based on her anecdotal findings rather than medical recommendations.

So I decided to return to first principles and do some research. But it was initially difficult to find information on my specific question: How many feeds should a baby have in 24 hours? I found some interesting websites on evidence-based parenting and breastfeeding, and many interesting Cochrane reviews (current and planned).

I got side-tracked by a feminist critique of expectations placed on mothers and the World Health Organization’s breastfeeding guidelines (despite the WHO not being in our best books right now, I was interested in how firm they were about not introducing solids before 6 months; no big pharma behind that one, surely).

Still nothing concrete, although the WHO did recommend feeding “on demand”. But looking at the WHO site made me think more internationally. I wondered how women in other cultures feed their babies, and also how other mammals (especially our closest relatives, the chimpanzee) fed theirs.

Then I found an anthropology on Google Books, Hunter-gatherer childhoods, with a lot of interesting info. Apparently, mammals that carry their infants with them also feed them more or less continuously; evolutionarily, humans fall into this category. Hunter-gatherer women follow this model, essentially practising attachment parenting — they feed their infants constantly, carry them most or all the time, and sleep with them at night. Like other continuous-feeding mammals, their milk is more dilute than spaced feeders like rabbits, which leave their young in a nest or burrow and feed them at intervals.

Most women in developed countries feed more like rabbits than chimpanzees; for the most part, their babies seem to manage OK, but there’s no definite research into this. Certainly humans are very adaptive and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle can’t suit women who return to work, or who have limited support.

Still, I think it’s valuable to try and match our lifestyle to our design as closely as possible. I’d be interested in research into how different feeding patterns can affect health later in life, as well as general infant wellbeing (we always hear that colic doesn’t exist in developing countries, for example).

In the meantime, I’ve put the idea of a routine on the back burner. But it seemed like as soon as I relaxed about it, he started sleeping better anyway. They’re always one step ahead…

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