For my mother’s generation, deciding how to manage the first months of a baby’s life was comparatively straightforward. There was one book out there to be guided by – Dr Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare which, according to some sources, is considered to be the second best-selling book after the Bible! Nowadays, parents are faced with a multitude of different books, advocating a multitude of different approaches. At one end of the spectrum, there is the Gina Ford philosophy of putting a strict routine above all else. At the other end, there is Jean Liedloff’s the Continuum Concept advocating a completely ‘baby-led’ approach to child-rearing.
What does Chinese medicine have to say on the matter and can it help us to see beyond these approaches to find a little more balance? Can it help parents respond to their individual baby’s needs whilst simultaneously not losing sight of their own?
Chinese medicine is very clear that young children are, by their very nature, full of yang energy. This means that they have a need to move a lot, a certain exuberance and often volatility. Whilst this abundance of yang is physiological, rather than pathological, and is necessary to fuel their extraordinarily rapid growth, it also can easily become ‘out of control’. Therefore, it needs tempering. The best way to temper it, is by creating a strongly yin environment.
A yin environment is one where there is consistency, predictability and repetition. Babies and young children have not had time to build an internal sense of structure, and are therefore often comforted and made to feel safe by an external structure. Having a certain rhythm to their daily routine is often calming and helps to keep the exuberant yang in check. For many, having meals and going to sleep at around about the same time each day, is a way of creating this rhythm.
However, we should differentiate between predictability and inflexibility. Life itself is certainly not completely predictable, and babies and young children will have slightly different needs from one day to the next. Trying to impose too much routine does not allow for this, and a too rigid approach may create stress or conflict for both parent and child. A toddler who has no flexibility in their schedule may struggle to develop the resilience necessary to cope with the unpredictable nature of life.
Another consideration is that stress, in either child or parent, is one of the most common reasons for yang energy to rise up in the body. When this happens, children may display more intense emotions, be inclined towards digestive disturbances and sleep less well. Therefore, it’s probably not worth rushing home in a fluster purely to make sure we can get our baby off to sleep on the dot of 7pm. The anxiety this may induce is most likely more detrimental than going to bed slightly later than usual.
The vast majority of children will benefit from having some rhythm and routine in their life most of the time. Beyond this basic premise, each parent and child must find a way through the first years of life which creates the most ease for both of them. Pronouncements about one approach being ‘right’ and another ‘wrong’ are missing the point. A more helpful way to look at it is to assess the unique needs of each parent and child, and to respond to that as best as possible.