The great Gina Ford debate
It takes a brave man to attack The Contented Little Baby Book. So was Nick Clegg right? Emma Bamford explains the strict approach to parenting, while Independent writers take sides in the debate
Tuesday 12 January 2010
Love her or hate her, when it comes to Gina Ford, parents seem to almost always fall into two camps, and very rarely does anyone sit on the fence.
Dubbed the "Queen of Routine", she took her 12 years of looking after 300 babies as a maternity nurse to publish a strictly regimented method for raising infants.
Her best-selling guide The Contented Little Baby Book, first published in 1999, advises new parents to break down their day into five-minute slots in order to settle their baby into a routine as soon as possible.
The baby must be woken and fed by 7am, and parents fed by 8am. Then the baby must be fed – always in the nursery – every four hours and given naps at certain times up until the last feed (in a dimly-lit nursery) at 6.15pm, during which parents should not make eye contact with their child in order not to excite it before bedtime.
Ford also advises parents to sometimes leave their baby crying for up to an hour so it will learn not to expect to always be picked up. Devotees of the method rave it helps their infants sleep 12 hours a night from when they are just a few weeks old. Television presenter Eamonn Holmes and his partner Ruth Langsford sang Ford's praises for giving them a "clockwork baby".
But detractors, including the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who at the weekend lambasted Ford's routine as "absolute nonsense", report ending up in tears at the stress of trying to force their child to conform. For her part, Ford said Mr Clegg had "insulted the parenting choice of more than 2 million British voters".
It was not the first time her approach has courted controversy. In 2007, Ford, who does not have children of her own, sued the parenting website Mumsnet for publishing comments by readers about her that she said were defamatory. Mumsnet in response asked members to no longer write about Ford. The case was settled out of court.
For: Jimmy Leach - Using a routine was a huge help
Jimmy Leach is editorial director for digital at The Independent. He and his wife, Nikki, have two children, Sammy, six, and Olivia, four.
It's probably the only time a man will look at an instruction manual. You come home from hospital with a wailing bundle, unable to calm it down or make it see sense. And, in addition to the wife, you've also got a baby to look after. You're knackered, irrational, bombarded with conflicting advice and looking for someone with a semblance of authority and no baggage in the family politics to tell you what to do.
Sammy spent a long time making his entrance to the world. A four-day labour (caused by the complications of an undetected ovarian cyst) is not the best preparation for anything. He was a tricksy little fellow in the first few months; difficult to settle, difficult to please. Sleep patterns were chaotic and he found breastfeeding an insoluble problem. When my wife asked her GP why even breastfeeding seemed to be beyond her, she was scolded for "being so middle class and to settle for a bottle".
Wiped out, verging on depression and with both of us working again, we needed something to help us make sense of it all. Some friends were Gina Ford evangelists, so, in the hope of finding some kind of answer, we gave it a go. And it worked. Kind of.
Nick Clegg, with his criticisms of the Ford method, took the approach that it's a rigid, her-way-or-the-highway approach – rearing an animal rather than raising a small child. And if you take it literally, it can be like that, as you munch your way through your (wholemeal, Gina says) toast at 7am, before placing your child on a cold surface to ensure he's fully awake, then later avoiding eye contact at bedtime as you try to convince the nipper that it is bedtime.
But I've never been one for detail and it was the approach, rather than the exact timetabling, that clicked. How do we make Sammy understand that being awake in daylight is more fun that in the dark? How do we know that meal times could work better than snack times? In short, how do we tell the little bugger who's in charge? It's difficult, and sometimes even a little cruel, but the installation of a routine was a huge help for us all.
It might have been something that would have happened anyway, but we took on a kind of Ford-lite regime and things improved markedly. We were mocked mercilessly by more laissez-faire parents, including a couple where the father was relegated to the sofa every night as their sleepless child took his place in bed. We were consoled by the fact that we were sleeping better, more able to plan days around feed times that were reached by a kind of mutual agreement, and were feeling like we were making daily progress rather than celebrating Groundhog Day.
But by the time our second child, Olivia, arrived, we were seasoned parents; we didn't need the instruction manual. We were cooler than that. Olivia turned out to be the world's first entirely nocturnal baby.
Against: James Moore - Think of your baby's needs
James Moore, The Independent's deputy business editor, is married to Joanne and has a son, Luke, two.
If my wife and I had been enrolled in the Gina Ford parenting school we'd have been sent to the back of the class with dunces' caps on.
All our good intentions of mapping out a routine for Luke – ensuring he was in a cot at a set time at night, the same for daytime naps – were blown out of the water almost from day one.
We'd read Gina's book and although we were not planning to follow her programme rigidly, we were generally on the same page.
Then Luke arrived.
It didn't help that his birth was anything but trouble-free, but even had that not been the case, I think we would have failed at the get-tough approach.
His early days were anything but easy. He didn't seem to like being a baby very much and suffered from colic. And he cried. And cried and cried. He was quite clearly in distress, if not pain. Faced with that, we realised that the hard-ass approach was going to be a failure. We gave in. It's so much easier for the likes of Gina to play tough guy when they don't have children of their own, and so lack the sort of emotional connection that leaves parents in agony when we have to listen to distressed children screaming. Within a few days we chucked Gina's book on the fire along with all our resolutions.
It was time for something that my wife discovered was called "attachment parenting" and which some critics refer to as "being soft as muck". It doesn't mean a complete lack of discipline. It doesn't mean letting the child rule the roost. It does mean that you concentrate on fulfilling the baby's needs rather than your own. It might be strenuous and demanding. There might be no empirical proof that it's effective. But you know what? It works for us.
Neither of us would dream of criticising those who use Gina's methods and find they work. Far from it. Well done them and we hope they enjoy their uninterrupted sleep and can work within their routines.
We don't get those luxuries. While there's a vague pattern to Luke's daytime naps, sometimes he takes them at inconvenient times. Our method of parenting has proved slightly chaotic. It flies in the face of the advice given by many experts, including Ms Ford. But we don't care. Luke seems to be a happy, well-adjusted, and often delightful child. He has his moments (they all do) but he's a month and a half past his second birthday and there's been no sign of the terrible twos so far. This works for us and it works for Luke.
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