A mailing list to which I subscribe is currently discussing Gina Ford of the Contented Little Baby Books. Since the mailing list in question is an Attachment Parenting list, ‘discussing’ is a euphemism. ‘Excoriating’ might be a better term. Anyone who’s spent time on such lists will be fairly familiar with the kind of reactions that the Routine Queen’s name brings forth, and the conversation this time is going pretty much the way it usually does, featuring such customary phrases as ‘detachment parenting’, ‘poor abused children’, and ‘why did they have kids in the first place?’. (I must admit to being quite amused by the line ‘I must remember not to judge, I just think that I am right’.)
For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t read such forums, has never heard of Gina Ford, and is wondering what all of this ire is about, Gina is a maternity nurse whose (extensive) experience has left her convinced that – in contradiction to all the popular child-rearing advice of the past couple of decades – babies actually do thrive on strict routines from very nearly the start. She’s worked out a set of detailed routines for babies of different ages from one week to one year, with equally detailed guidelines on how to tell when a baby is ready to move from one routine to the next. The routines are worked out according to a baby’s need for feeding and sleep at each stage, with the idea being to meet their needs smoothly and easily as they arise so that they aren’t left awake for long enough to get overtired and upset. She also recommends getting babies used to sleeping in their own cots in their own rooms from the start to avoid potential difficulties in transferring there later; pumping extra milk on a regular basis if breastfeeding, to avoid upsetting the routines when baby goes through a growth spurt; and controlled crying for older babies with sleep problems.
Feedback from people who’ve actually tried it, or at least from people who post on the Internet about their experiences of having tried it, seems mostly positive. The majority of reported experiences are of babies settling into the routine fairly easily and thriving on it, and there are abundant comments from parents saying how happy and cheerful their babies seem on it/how miraculous the change in them is since starting it. Some people do report bad experiences with it, but most of the numerous negative reviews seem to be based on ideology rather than personal experience.
It is possible that you may still, at this point, not be entirely clear on what she’s done to qualify as the Daughter of Satan. Fortunately, due to the number of mailing lists and other parenting-related forums I read, I have heard numerous
rants on explanations of this very point, and am hence able to enlighten you.
For starters, you see, routines for very small babies – especially breastfed babies – are Bad. Everyone knows that. After all, the "feed only every four hours, no matter how much they cry, no matter how much they beg" routines of the 50s or whenever it was were a complete disaster for breastfeeding, so it obviously follows that all routines for young babies must be Bad, and that promoting them is the equivalent of wearing horns and a tail. As if this weren’t bad enough, however, Gina also believes that in some circumstances it’s appropriate to leave babies crying for a certain amount of time. And that’s completely wrong. After all, research shows that regularly and frequently leaving babies to cry while giving them little positive attention in their lives overall is bad for them, so there you have it – proof that Gina’s practice of leaving babies to cry on a few occasions at scheduled sleep times when they’ve been fed, between waking periods when they get plenty of attention and affection must be inflicting incalculable psychological harm.
As if this wasn’t already bad enough, she believes in leaving babies to sleep in their own rooms, which is something we could never have got away with in our cave days – why, a baby who was put down to sleep away from other people would have probably been eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger! Admittedly, there probably aren’t going to be that many sabre-toothed tigers padding around the average nursery these days. But you just can’t take the chance, can you?
Oh, yes – and Gina also believes that children are just manipulative little tyrants who must have their spirits crushed. Well, no, not that anyone can come up with any example of her saying that – in fact, she’s specified that the reason she uses the methods she does is because she’s found that both mothers and babies are happier when using them – but that religious nutcase in the USA who writes baby books believes this and he uses routines and Gina uses routines and so obviously she must feel the same way as he does. Also, his methods have been linked to deaths from failure to thrive and so obviously Gina bears responsibility for those deaths as well (despite the fact that she has nothing whatsoever to do with Ezzo and, unlike him, has no problem at all with parents feeding a genuinely hungry baby before the set time).
Most of the anti-Gina brigade don’t even seem to have read her books. Sometimes, I really do get the impression that they think her methods consist solely of shutting your screaming child in a room and spending the rest of the day ignoring him while rubbing your hands and gloating "Bwahahahahaaaaa! That’ll show you who’s boss, then! Try to manipulate me, would you?" For a lot of people, ‘Gina Ford’ doesn’t refer to a person or even a method – it’s a shorthand for every kind of childrearing practice they disapprove of, whether it has anything at all to do with the real Gina Ford or not.
Nor do they seem to have any particular desire to find out what they’re talking about before talking about it. They just hear words like ‘routine’ and ‘controlled crying’ and reach for the burning torches. The trouble is, making assumptions can be easier and more satisfying than trying to find out the facts. After all, who wants accuracy when instead you can have your very own Hate Figure?
In case this post is sounding like an ode to Gina Ford, I’d like to clarify that I’m actually not wild about her books. I do rather enjoy reading her routines – they’re an intriguing glimpse of a fantasy alternate universe in which we would actually be organised enough to have the baby upnappychangedandfeeding by 7 a.m., settledforhisnap by 9 a.m., and the rest of it, and I find this oddly satisfying – but I’ve never made more than an occasional half-hearted attempt towards trying them myself. Jamie seems perfectly contented without benefit of Gina Ford, so it never seemed worth the trouble. There are some specific bits of her advice with which I disagree, for various reasons which I can’t be bothered to go into here, but for the most part they’re filed in the ‘Whatever works for you’ section of my brain. What really bothers me about Gina is not so much her methods, but the fact that she doesn’t seem to have an equivalent section in her own brain.
Gina, you see, is one of life’s OneTrueWayers. Reading what she has to say, you’re left feeling that any other way of bringing up a baby is doomed to failure and catastrophe, not to mention discontentment. She simply does not acknowledge that it might be possible for any method of child-rearing of which she does not personally approve to work perfectly well for some babies, mothers, and families.
In other words, she has exactly the same attitude as some of her bitterest opponents.
My own belief in OneTrueWayism when it came to bringing up children (I knew the perfect one-size-fits-all-children method just had to be out there waiting to be discovered) did not survive a) actually having one, and b) spending time on forums with other women who had done likewise and were willing to share their experience thereof. Since then, I’ve grown very wary of anyone who does extol a OneTrueWay ™, regardless of whether the Way in question is that of Gina Ford, Tracy Hogg, Dr Sears, or anyone else out there. It immediately brings out the Devil’s Advocate in me. Show me the evidence, say I, and while you do that I shall search for the existence of any counter-evidence to see whether your hypothesis is strong enough to stand up to being tested in the fires of truly rigorous scientific inquiry. Which, in another of life’s little ironies, led me from searching for an anti-Gina website, to defending Gina on the very mailing list I eventually found.
I never did find an anti-Gina website, or at least not the kind of anti-Gina website I was looking for. What I was after was not just a Gina-Is-Evil rant – those exist in abundance – but a reasoned collection of actual evidence, such as has been collected against Ezzo. If there’s one out there, it so far escapes me. But what I did find, thanks to the passing mention of Gina Ford on the home page, was the aforementioned mailing list – a group for parents who like to explore Attachment Parenting and/or green living methods. I joined it because I like reading about different ways of doing things, and I stayed because it’s a wonderfully friendly, fun list. We have had our differences, but, with the possible exception of the mother who left the list in a huff when I dared to question some of the evidence she cited in her Evils-Of-Paracetamol rant, everyone there has been completely accepting of the disposable-nappying, fully-vaccinating, Gina-defending heretic in their midst, and even our disagreements have been good-natured. As much as I may disagree with a lot of what they say, I do like how they say it.
And, on the subject of disagreements – I pointed out on the list that perhaps some of the above-quoted comments might be a little over the top. The reply I got started out "I have never read GF’s books but I am assuming…" Somehow, I wasn’t all that surprised.