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On Demand or Scheduled Feeding?

QUESTION: We have a three-week-old baby and have been getting conflicting advice on feeding schedules. We are breastfeeding on demand as suggested by the pediatrician. Our little one eats, sleeps and wakes all on her schedule. Should a baby's feeds be on demand or scheduled?

The information you have gathered from your pediatrician is fairly standard advice, based on sound evidence to support emotional development in the first several months of life. Be aware, however, that these recommendations may fly in the face of relatives of the last generation that were raised on the belief in "training" children to follow a schedule from an early age. As new parents, you may indeed get some flack about adjusting to your newborn, yet what your pediatrician has told you is congruent with a more child-centered approach to parenting.

We become capable of greater emotional independence because our dependency needs have been met, not the other way around! In fact, your baby's crying presents an opportunity to experience the positive dimensions of pleasure and soothing. Without soothing experiences, she will be vulnerable to easy frustration as an older child or adult who does not possess the capacity for self-soothing. The ability to soothe herself is primary for handling future frustration in life and begins with internalizing songs, voices and words we have heard while being rocked and comforted through emotional and physical disturbances.

Experientially, try to put yourself in your daughter's skin. She has just come out of the womb, where all needs were met automatically. She has just undergone a huge process of change which involves the healthy stress of labor to come out into the world. Being physiologically separate is a new and potentially dangerous situation, from a biological standpoint. Your baby's only defense is to cry. Crying is her survival adaptation to temperature, hunger, sounds, and pain. If her early experience of the world is one of soothing to address her distress, she will begin to develop a sense of "basic trust" which is the emotional developmental milestone for the first year of life. What could be more immediately gratifying than being held and breastfed when you are hungry? Immediate gratification is necessary in the early months of life, in order to be able to delay gratification later.

Books like the popular, "The Baby Book" by William Sears and Martha Sears may be useful for stimulating discussion between you and your wife about your philosophy for early childrearing. However much should come from your own experience of soothing your daughter and learning who this new little person is!

As your daughter grows, she will adjust to you and her world in your family. You will begin to confidently know the difference between a "distress" cry, a cry to release tension or a cry of moderate discomfort. And you will adjust your response to her accordingly. She will adjust to your needs and schedules as they emerge into her world soon enough. There is no need to artificially enforce schedules prematurely. They will evolve naturally as you learn her natural rhythms and she learns yours.

Do not be pressured by warnings of others that she will be "spoiled". You will know when or if this is the case because it will come from your knowledge of her, not from others projected anxiety. Parenting is developed over time and in context of the immediate feedback you experience with your child. There is no clear "right" or "wrong," but instead a constant adjustment to what you learn about your child's emerging needs and personality. What is good for one child may be different for another. And remember, those who say they are "experienced" parents have no experience raising your child!

Be aware of the fact that you are also in a transitional stage of your young family's development. One of the tasks of this phase is to establish your bond as a couple which includes developing your authority as parents together. Find out what soothes your newborn now. Focus on meeting her needs so that she may experience her transition to the world as both emotionally and physically satisfying. And work together to develop a philosophy for parenting that is based on you and your wife's experience of your child over time. You will make mistakes and you will learn from them. Parenting is like shifting gears on a car. You learn from the feedback you receive, whether you have shifted too early or too late. Then you adjust your timing. The era will come when you require your daughter to adjust to your scheduling as well. But this will be gradual. For now she is a newborn. She still has three to four years of growing before she can be called a "young child". Do not rush through her infanthood and toddlerhood too quickly. There will be plenty of time to check the gauges!

Your daughter will respond to your joint leadership, even if you decide to make changes in the future. Stay in touch with establishing a foundation for basic trust in this first year of your child's life. Your sensitivity to your newborn's experience will guide and inform your parenting decisions.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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