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Practicing baby bedtime & the link to energy

by on June 30, 2016

A year ago today, I became a parent (and helps to explain my absence on here!). Becoming a parent has made me reflect on how we use our homes in different ways at different times; and the implications this may have for energy demand. In this, my first proper blog since returning to work, I hope to illustrate how, using the example of temperature, my relationship with my own home has changed as a consequence of having a baby.

To be a good parent is to keep your baby safe. To be a good parent is to keep your baby warm, not too warm, but just the right amount of warm. As newborn babies have an inability to regulate their own temperature, becoming too warm or too cold is problematic, and has been recognised as one of the key causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), commonly known as ‘Cot Death’ in the case of the former. The danger of overheating therefore ranks highly as one of the concerns of a new parent, at least in my case. But it seems I’m not alone; a quick search on Mumsnet reveals 667 unique message threads with the words ‘newborn room temperature’ in them.

When we think about this from a practice perspective, which highlights the interconnected elements of materials, competencies and meanings[1], the relationality of the many different aspects of babies’ sleeping come to the fore. Taking these elements in turn, and dealing with materiality of bedtime first, many are complicit in this practice: the cot/moses basket, the room (whether large or small, north or south-facing, carpeted or bare floors); the sheets (terry towelling, fleece, cotton); the blankets or sleeping bag (which itself can be a range of weights or togs, shapes and designs); the baby monitor (ours had an integrated thermometer meaning that the parent unit would beep if it was too warm or too cold); thermometers (which come with the sleeping bags); radiators, or in our case, an oil filled thermostat electric radiator which we plug in on cold nights. This is not an exhaustive list of materials by any means, but it begins to highlight the extent to which the many and different materials are implicated in the particular practice of bedtime.

Importantly, these materials require certain competencies in order to be used ‘properly’. For instance, how to put the baby to sleep (on their back, feet to the foot of the cot, with just the ‘right’ number of blankets for the temperature (remembering that a folded blanket counts as two blankets)) and the appropriate room temperature (about 18 degrees Celsius as recommended by the NHS) is knowledge passed on at ante natal classes, reinforced by midwives, health visitors and often in instructions that come with baby sleep products. But these skills, or competencies, develop over time too. The ability to judge the temperature of the room without the use of a thermometer, or to choose the right amount of layers to dress the baby for bed, or to anticipate how the home may cool overnight are new skills that accumulate as the practice evolves and changes in relation to the age of the child, the season, and the outside temperature, for example.

Such competencies are influenced as much by social and cultural meanings as by materials. Bedtime is an important component which both structures and is structured by the day, and a baby’s sleeping practices are imbued with meanings to do with safety and security, love and care, comfort and cosiness. Parenthood is a time when many are quick to offer advice, particularly around issues of sleep (or lack thereof). There can be a lot of pressure to instigate the ‘right’ bedtime routines, or to ensure your baby is getting the ‘right’ amount of sleep. Yet, just as these materials and competencies change over time (for instance, the advice when I was a baby was to put babies down to sleep on their front rather than their back), so too do meanings. ‘Crying-it-out’ as was encouraged when I was a baby, have been replaced with more gentle/attachment parenting styles. So, how we conceive of baby sleep, and attached meanings, have changed.

When I returned to work, it took a few weeks to adjust. It was a surreal feeling; somehow everything had changed yet nothing had. I realised that it was me that had changed, rather than where I worked or who I worked with. Such recognition caused me to reflect on the way in which parenthood had also changed the relationship I have with my home: the place that shelters my family. From the example of temperature, and by exploring the practice of bedtime, I can see how our changing family dynamics are changing how we use our home, and the practices that we enact. It has also caused me to reflect on the importance of performance, how practices are enacted (and that they vary by parent i.e. practitioner to practitioner), how they are embodied (e.g. the sensory nature of temperature and an ability to ‘feel’ when the temperature is ‘just right’), and their subjectivities (e.g. on Mumsnet there was an interesting thread started by a Russian citizen living in the UK who found the cooler temperatures encouraged by health professionals here to be at odds from their own experience). What it has also revealed is that the way in which the practice is practiced does create different implications for energy. A focus on room temperature rather than body temperature, involves different materials, competencies and meanings – and more or less energy. The way in which our home is heated has changed, a previously unused and hence cold bedroom (where the radiator was routinely off) has come into use. This ‘use’ differs too across the year in accordance with the season, and daily rhythms (our son goes to bed earlier than us so his room needs to be warmer earlier in the evening).

To conclude, it seems to me that the way in which we think academics about homes/housing needs to reflect the ever-changing ways in which we use them. Personally, embarking on parenthood has changed many ways in which we interact with our home, not least in relation to temperature. So perhaps, as academics, when we think about energy demand, we should be thinking about homes rather than houses, and not of energy per se, but the practices that create demand for energy – and intervening in those.

[1] roughly speaking and depending on which theorist one prefers

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