Tulipgirl is observing Ezzo Week 2007 over at her blog.
I first encountered the Ezzos’ teachings when I heard their weekly radio program years ago. The radio station billed it as a program where husband and wife Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo would share biblical principles for parenting.
That sounded interesting to me, so I tuned in. The Ezzos used a call-in format to advise parents on how to extend the time between a baby’s scheduled feedings, how to habituate a baby to a program of daily periods of isolation in a playpen, and how to put an early end to nighttime feedings.
Of all the ideas I had imagined might be inspired by “biblical principles,” these were not among them. I was appalled.
As an experienced mother, I was aware that some people employed feeding schedules (even though breastfeeding experts unanimously agree the practice can stunt milk supply.) I was aware that some people let their babies cry to sleep. I was familiar with employing a playpen for safe-keeping of baby while bringing in groceries from the car. But enforcing daily or twice-daily periods of solitary confinement for its own sake?
And how could any of these things — seriously — be connected to Christianity? Yet these radio hosts were in dead earnest, and the callers’ questions revealed an eagerness to be told exactly how to conform to the program.
Despite their enthusiasm, callers to the program described difficulties.
For example, having reduced the feedings of a very young baby down to only 4 a day, the parents might observe that the baby was now sleeping poorly, and crying more.
An uninstructed mother might reasonably assume that the baby was hungry.
But the Ezzos would explain to the caller that the baby probably just needed time to adapt to the new regimen. If the parent stuck to it and did not cave in to the baby’s demands, the baby would learn that his parents were in charge. The parents’ role as the authority figure in their baby’s life was at stake in this power struggle. If the question of hunger was raised, the Ezzos explained that when feedings are eliminated, the baby makes up the difference by taking in more milk at the remaining feedings.
Of course, the truth is that when feedings are reduced, many babies cannot simply “make up the difference”. The baby becomes fussier and doesn’t sleep well. Other babies may sleep more — to conserve calories. These “content-to-starve” babies appear to be adapt to the program and parents often don’t realize the true situation it is revealed at a well-baby pediatric visit.
One reason babies can’t just “make up the difference” (aside from the small size of their stomachs and the limitation in the amount of milk various women can contain) is that when a feeding is eliminated, the fullness in the breasts signals the body to reduce the milk supply. Frequent feedings are advantageous for breastfed babies. Round-the-clock feedings in infancy help meet the demands of rapid brain and body growth and protect the baby’s immature immune system with round-the-clock delivery of antibodies. Frequent feedings protect the mother’s milk supply.
As the program became popular in the early to mid 90’s, health care providers began to see the babies in their offices – dehydrated and failing to thrive.
The program claimed to share biblical principles for parenting, but didn’t mention principles applicable to early parenthood like compassion, endurance and self-sacrifice.
Instead, the Ezzos argued that mothers often go too far in sacrificing their time and energy for the new baby. The baby should be regarded as a “welcome member of the family,” but mothers were instructed not to let the demands of mothering a new baby overshadow her responsibilities to her husband even in the early months.
Instead of helping parents to adjust to parenthood by encouraging them to embrace a Christ-like calling to be self-giving, compassionate and self-controlled, the Ezzos encouraged them to be vigilant about giving too much. Setting a feeding schedule would provide a vehicle to maintain control and keep priorities straight. The reward would be full nights of sleep and “good reviews” for their baby’s happy disposition.
A black and white picture emerged. Either a parent followed the Ezzo’s plan and was in control and biblically oriented, or the parent was in thrall to her emotions, overly responsive to the baby, “child-centered,” husband-ignoring, and even idolatrous. Parents who answered the cry of their babies were mocked as being unable to stand up to their babies. “And if they can’t stand up against an 8 week old,” the Ezzos would cluck, “how in the world will these parents deal with a teenager?”
Feedings seemed to be viewed mainly as a vehicle to establish order and control.
They were to be brief, business-like transactions and offered only every three to four hours, preferably the latter.
Ezzo’s explanations for how this should work out sound plausible, but to those who were (and are) actually familiar with the true physiological facts of the matter, it was (and is) alarming.
- Many mothers and babies don’t have the capacity to hold that much milk at a given time. For these pairs, frequent feedings are ideal.
- Babies, like adults, metabolize their food at differing rates and have varying caloric needs from day to day.
- Unlike adults, babies should double their birth weight in six months and experience growth spurts, causing intensified hunger and feeding needs from time to time.
- A baby’s food is also his water! In hot or dry conditions, he may need to nurse for thirst.
- When intervals lengthen between feedings, milk in the breast signals the breast to slow down production.
- Frequent feedings in the post-partum period establish the necessary prolactin receptors which pave the way for a stable milk supply later as prolactin levels begin to drop.
Thus physiology–not a permissive, secular philosophy–suggests that feedings set by the baby’s hunger and thirst cues will generally trigger an accurate and optimized feedback loop between the mother’s physiology for milk supply and regulation and the baby’s physiology with its nourishment needs.
Ezzo explained to followers who experienced dwindling milk supply that a certain percentage of women can’t sustain an adequate milk supply, and they should comfort themselves with the truth that breastfeeding is not what makes you a good mother.
It’s a downright shame Ezzo led these women to believe their bodies didn’t work instead of taking responsibility for outcomes that were very likely caused by his poor advice.
Recommendations for feeding intervals were adjusted in later editions of Ezzo’s books without explanation or apology.
Thankfully Babywise recommendations for the number of daily feedings in the early weeks have been raised. They now skim the bottom of the normal range. Still the books imply that early leniency should give way to a parent-directed approach as quickly as possible — or the goals of the plan will not be met. Statements about flexibility and meeting needs are undermined by stern warnings about being “too flexible” and the need to police off-schedule “snacking”.
Refuting Babywise’s reputation for undermining breastfeeding, the 2001 edition of Ezzo’s Babywise book insists it actually helps mothers succeed with breastfeeding, supporting this claim with unpublished in-house studies.
But on page 64 Ezzo makes an uncharacteristic admission about his method’s impact on breastfeeding.
He tackles this unpleasant news by bringing sleep into the equation and suddenly downplaying breastfeeding’s relative importance in comparison to “healthy sleep.” He counsels parents to decide in advance whether breastfeeding or “healthy sleep” is most important to them,
“…because in parenting there will always be trade-offs….While most moms can satisfy both with Babywise, we recognize that not all moms can because in parenting no philosophy comes without trade-offs.” (Ezzo, 2001)
How odd that Ezzo admits that “not all moms can” breastfeed as desired when using Babywise, but refuses to acknowledge the validity of the experience of so many families who endured low milk supply, poor weight gain, failure-to-thrive, etc, as their “trade-off” became actualized?
And how uncharitable it is–not to mention divisive–that Ezzo can make this admission but continue to portray critics as unscupulous and biased by professional jealousy!
Equally disturbing as the feeding recommendations I heard about on the radio program, were the recommendations for regimented times of isolation in a playpen and the enforcement of “highchair manners”.
When callers to the radio program had questions about how to handle a baby who cried during the recommended daily “playpen time,” the answer was to stay out of sight of the baby and set a timer to indicate that playpen time was over when the timer indicated — so that the baby would learn that his crying – his signals for help – were ineffectual.
When callers wanted to know how to correct poor “highchair manners,” like grasping at the spoon or touching the food, the answer was to hold the baby’s hands beneath the highchair tray — or swat the baby if simply holding the hands down was not effective.
Worried as well as curious, after I heard some of the radio programs, I wrote to the Ezzo’s organization.
I registered my concern and asked if they could explain the biblical underpinnings of the advice I had heard. I assumed they had probably developed a brochure to set forth their views, and hoped they would send one to me.
Several months later, I received a personal letter from Mr. Ezzo himself. It was arrogant and openly insulting. (I still have it in my files and find it more shocking now than I did then.) I was taken aback, but I figured if Mr. Ezzo regularly exhibited such offensiveness, it would be hard for him to gain much influence.
But I was wrong. In fact, the wave of excitement around his materials and ideas was still building.
I do not know how to gauge the current popularity of the program. It seems to me that the danger level has been reduced but that some problems still remain. Since root issues were never acknowledged, I’m concerned that even if criticism caused Ezzo to revise some of his advice, it may come back to haunt another generation.
For more information, see www.ezzo.info for numerous professional reviews, critiques, statements and other information to help them evaluate the methods.