Monthly Archives: March 2007

Gina Ford: Who Are You To Tell Us?

On Monday 5th March, Five Live screened a programme of the above title about the one and only Gina Ford, author of the infamous Contented Little Baby Books.  The moderator of one of my mailing lists asked for our comments on it.  Never one to turn down a chance to ramble on at great length blogging opportunity, I figured I’d post mine here.

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"So," my husband asked me, as he set up the video to record the programme as I’d requested, "do you think Gina Ford’s right or wrong, then?"  I told him that I thought this was the biggest problem with the whole debate – everyone frames the question in those terms. 

It’s a meaningless question.  Right or wrong for whom?  Babies are as individual as people of any other age group.  Anecdotally, many babies seem to get positive benefits from her routine.  Others would probably benefit more from having things done a different way.  And, of course, most babies are adaptable creatures who are going to do perfectly well on any method that includes love, affection, and basic care, Gina’s included.  But, unfortunately, most of the people in the perennial Gina debate either seem to tout her method as The Solution To Every Parenting Problem, or to vilify it as eeeeevil.  And people will argue back and forth over whether her methods are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ without ever stopping to ask whether they might, in fact, simply be one among many possible and valid ways of parenting.

To my lack of surprise, the programme pretty much took this approach as well.  "I would say there’s no way someone could follow that routine and it not work, honestly," Michelle Gayle enthused.  "The people who say ‘We did it and it didn’t work’… then they didn’t do it properly," stated Ruth Holmes, GMTV presenter and a Gina follower so passionate that she refers to her, only partly jestingly, as ‘Saint Gina’.  (Why, yes – it’s so much easier to blame the parents than to admit that your heroine might not have a perfect one-size-fits-all solution that’s right for every baby out there.)  Similarly, the anti-Gina brigade gave no hint that they thought the method might be right for anyone. None of this was any less than I’d expected – but, oh, how I’d have loved to see one of the many interviewees pointing out that the real question is why we’re so determined to frame childcare debates in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ instead of being willing to see children as individuals and look at what might work best for each child, as part of each family.

There was a certain grim justice in this, given that Gina herself is such a classic proponent of the one-method-fits-all idea.  I was fascinated to hear that Clare Byam-Cook, one of Gina’s advisors, advised her to state in the foreword to one of her books that these were guidelines, not rules, and that Gina declined; according to Byam-Cook, Gina feels that you can vary the rules as you would a recipe, but that her way is the ‘perfect’ way of doing things.  It may, of course, be unfair to be too nit-picky about the choice of words there, given that it was someone else’s opinion of something Gina thought and thereby liable to the usual Chinese Whispers phenomenon; but the idea of parenting as a recipe or as something that can be done in one perfect way does certainly fit with the aura of OneTrueWayism that her books exude.

As usual in such debates, unsupported statements abounded.  We had Sheila Kitzinger darkly telling us that the methods were "dangerous" for reasons left unexplored; somebody else’s (Margot Sunderland’s?) claim that Gina’s methods taught children to ignore their own feelings; and, capping them all, Oliver James’s claim that Gina Ford’s methods protect the parents’ mental health "at the cost of the baby’s mental health."  "If you’re going to claim something like that," my husband howled at the screen "you’d better have the evidence to prove it."  Quite. 

Of course, we don’t know what was left on the cutting-room floor, and it is a reasonable bet that all of these people did, in fact, come out with what they thought of as evidence against her methods.  (One of the other participants certainly did, incidentally – she’s a member of the aforementioned mailing list, and told us that her own lengthy comments on the topic weren’t included.)  Whether it actually was valid evidence is another matter entirely.

After some years of following the whole Gina Ford debate and similar parenting debates in which people regularly claim to have ‘proof’ that these or associated methods are psychologically harmful, I have yet to see any study findings that haven’t been wrenched so far out of context as to be inapplicable.  In fact, another psychologist actually pointed out at the end of the programme that Gina’s methods have never been formally studied.  He claimed that this was a reason why they shouldn’t be used (exactly what parents are supposed to do if they can’t ever try anything with their children which hasn’t been formally studied, given the number of tricks of the parenting trade that have never been subject to any assessment more formal than "Well, it worked for Cousin Elsie", is a question that was left unanswered); but nobody pointed out that the obvious corollary of this was that the dark and unspecified allusions to the hideous dangers of her methods to the psychological health of infants were unproved speculation, no matter how much the interviewees tried to present them as fact.

(Incidentally, no-one pointed out a flaw in Gina’s methods which I would have thought actually was supported by evidence – her insistence on putting babies to sleep in their own rooms from an early stage.  Given that several large studies have found an association between this practice and an increased cot death risk, I’m surprised that we hear so little discussion of this point in Gina debates.)

It would have been interesting to hear the opinions of the Gina followers on the programme about what they felt the effect had been on their children’s psyche and general happiness, but this was an issue that the programme rather seemed to skirt.  One Gina mum did describe her children as "just dead ‘appy", but there was little other discussion of the subject, the parents’ comments seeming to focus largely on their children’s sleeping habits to an extent that left me with images of a cult of Contented Stepford Babies.  At the time, this annoyed me; looking back on the programme as a whole, I do have to wonder how much of it was due to careful editing.  I have learned never to underestimate the ability of the media to present things out of context when it suits them. 

When I’ve browsed the ‘Net for mentions of Gina Ford, I’ve come across not only numerous parents raving about how happy their babies are on the method but several who actually feel, having tried non-Gina approaches as well as Gina’s method, that their babies actually improved markedly on Gina’s method.  (In fact, I’ve found it a good deal easier to find such accounts than to find accounts from anyone who tried the method and didn’t like it.)  It makes sense – after all, adults get cranky and upset when overtired or stressed out, and some adults can’t get to sleep unless they have darkness and quiet and no stimulation to keep them awake, so it seems reasonable that the same would be the case for babies and that there would be some babies who thrive best on a regime where they get quiet, peaceful naptime scheduled into the day at regular intervals to let them sleep well.  I would have enjoyed hearing from a mother who felt this had been the case with her child, as a counterpoint to all the doom and gloom claims and the general refusal of anyone in the anti-Gina camp to accept that her method might have any advantages beyond convenience for those nasty selfish parents.  Would it really have been so difficult to find one?

The programme did make some good points, chief of which was Michelle Gayle’s delightful debunking of the persistent myth that Gina’s methods and loving affection are somehow mutually exclusive.  "Because her book doesn’t say ‘Now hug the child… now kiss the child…’," Gayle told us, "I think they assume that she’s making a routine with no love allowance.  But the ‘love allowance’ is for you to apply, not for her to apply.  All she’s doing is giving you a routine.  It’s like when you take the timetable of a train – you know what time the train’s coming, it’s up to you whether you bring your i-pod or your newspaper."

Another mother brought up an issue that is, to me, far more of a problem than anything Gina says – the way she says it.  The whole tone, this mother pointed out, is off-putting with its talk of how you ‘must’ do this or that.  Even Clare Byam-Cook, Gina’s advisor, seemed to agree that the tone could be more flexible. Ruth Holmes dismissed this as an unnecessary attempt to make it into ‘a book of jokes’, but I don’t think that’s the issue at all.  As a new mother, I didn’t need a book of jokes either – what I needed was some reassurance that there are no ‘musts’ in childcare.  I found Gina’s book downright scary while finding my feet as a mother, because she really does make it sound as though parents who don’t follow her method are doomed to weeks of misery. 

As Byam-Cook seemed to be saying, the book would probably have been a lot more successful had she presented her methods as useful options for parents to try and see whether they worked.  (She is, of course, hardly unique among babycare authors in not doing so.)  As it is, the struggle to try to figure out what you ‘should’ be doing at each stage of the day according to Gina and make that happen can potentially get in the way of simply relaxing, figuring out how you want to be doing things, working towards that, and getting to know and enjoy your baby.  Just as I’d have liked to hear more from mums whose children had positively benefited from the method, I’d have liked to hear something from mothers who’d been happy doing things a different way.  It would have been a nice counterpart.

Gina’s method was demonstrated in action by the struggles of Millie Gregory, a new mother clearly so unhappy with the method from the start that it seems a fair assumption that she only tried it in the first place in response to recruitment by the production company.  Gina complained about this section of the programme not only on the (fairly reasonable) grounds that having a camera crew crowding out your home isn’t really the best start either to new life or to new parenthood, but also on the grounds that it did not fairly represent her methods.  The Contented Little Baby Book, Gina claimed, makes it clear that a baby should always be fed if it’s hungry regardless of whether or not it’s the recommended time.  (The programme did in fact point this little-recognised fact out, I was pleased to see.)  But, while it’s certainly true that her book says this, I would not agree that it makes it clear.  It mentions it in passing.  When I looked for the statement in question in hopes of clarifying precisely what she said for this post, I couldn’t even find it again.  I suspect that the chances of an exhausted shell-shocked new mother stumbling on that statement while flicking through the book trying to figure out what the hell to do next about her screaming baby would not be that great.

Which, of course, illustrates another big problem with the CLBB: it is so darned complicated in places that it’s easy to be left completely befuddled as to what you’re meant to be doing if things ever fail to go exactly according to plan.  Millie bewailed the lack of a Plan B when the baby doesn’t sleep or feed at just the recommended times, but, in fact, the book has several Plan Bs to deal with various contingencies.  It’s just that it’s pretty darned difficult to find the one you want at the time you want it, because it might be in any of several sections of the book, probably buried in the midst of a densely complicated case history entangled in a thicket of eye-glazing detail about the precise number of ounces of formula and minutes for which Baby Johnny cried at each nap before Gina’s magic solutions sorted everything out.  A method is only as good as the way it’s followed, and a method that’s horribly complicated to follow is going to go wrong a fair bit of the time regardless of how well it might work if followed perfectly.

The use of the Hippo Waddle as background to a rather unflattering cartoon of Gina was, as my husband pointed out, a cheap shot.  He isn’t keen on what little he knows of Gina and her methods, but, by the end of the programme, I think he was starting to feel a certain amount of sympathy for her.  "Look, I don’t agree with routines for small babies – but if you don’t like Gina, why not just not read her books?" he demanded indignantly of the television.  "Why be so horrible to her?" 

He also picked up something that I wouldn’t have pieced together in a million years.  At one point, as the parents left the baby in his room for his scheduled Gina nap, the father looked back into the room to tell the baby "We’ll be back to get you if you start crying" despite the fact that the crying was in fact ringing out loud and clear already.  It seemed odd, but I put it down to new parent befuddlement – which, of course, may for all I know have been the case.  But Barry, a man whose perceptiveness and smarts never cease to amaze me, picked up on the significance.  The scene, he pointed out, had cut from a shot of the baby crying in his basket to a shot of the parents leaving the room – but the background crying hadn’t had the momentary discontinuity that it should have had if it actually had been in both scenes.  My husband’s conclusion?  The baby hadn’t in fact been crying at all when he was left, but the scene had been edited to make it look as though he had. 

According to Barry’s interpretation, the editor had taken a shot of the baby from another occasion to paste into the scene of him being left for his nap – in itself, a normal and accepted practice for a documentary, where it just isn’t always practical to film every shot you need during the scene where it happened.  (To get a picture of the baby during that scene, a cameraman would have had to be left behind in the dark bedroom as the door closed for the baby’s nap!)  But instead of taking a scene that represented what had actually been happening, the editor had, whether deliberately or through sloppy editing (Barry’s vote was for the former), picked a shot of a crying baby rather than a settled baby and portrayed the scene as one of parents leaving a three-day-old baby crying in the name of Gina’s methods.

While disagreeing as vehemently as he does with the principle of this sort of deceptive filming, I found it hard to get too worked up about the specifics of this example; after all, Gina does say that once a baby has been fed and burped and settled and it’s naptime, she does leave them for a certain amount of time to ‘fuss and yell’ until they get to sleep.  (10 – 20 minutes is the timespan given in the CLBB, though she modifies this to 5 – 10 minutes on her website.)  This may well have been a misrepresentation of what happened on this occasion, but, as out of line as that is, I would not say that it’s a misrepresentation of what her book actually advises.  On this point I feel more sorry for the parents – if they really were aiming not to leave a crying baby alone, then they shouldn’t have been shown as doing so.  But this edit does seem to be in line with a subtle, pervasive anti-Gina theme underlying this superficially balanced programme.

And a more worrying example of this theme was in something I found on her website while writing this post – the reason for her odd and unexplained absence from the programme.  According to this, the director had contacted Gina for interview only in the final stages of making the programme, giving her less than a week to arrange an interview if she wanted to make her views known personally.  Gina, who has a heavily booked schedule, couldn’t manage it at such short notice.  It does look as though the makers of ‘Gina Ford: Who Are You To Tell Us?’ didn’t have much intention of making it easy for Gina to tell us anything in her own defence.

She did send a written statement giving her views, of which only a couple of lines were used on the programme.  "The aim of The Contented Baby philosophy," Gina wrote to the production team, "is to ensure that from the very beginning the baby’s needs are being met so completely that crying for whatever reason is minimal… I receive a huge feedback from the parents who buy my books and the response is the same: following the Contented Baby Philosophy results in a happy contented baby, who rarely cries."  These comments were not repeated in the show.

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Testing, testing

As you can probably gather from my last post, Jamie has continued apace on his "Speech dyspraxia?  Claim I have speech dyspraxia, will they?  Bwahahahaha – I’ll show those fools at the Family Health Centre!" campaign.  For a while I went on making approximate attempts to keep a list of the words he could say and a running total, but it was becoming more and more a gesture – it simply wasn’t possible to keep track of them all.  As of last weekend, the grand total was over a hundred even with the inevitable underestimation that came from trying to remember them all at the times that I could actually make it to the computer to write them down.  After that, I gave up adding more.

He’s stringing them together, coming out with phrases – Peel ‘nana.  Daddy big car.  More garden.  Want go window.  (And, of course, press button green man, now augmented by the additional commentary of green man come out.)

By the way, it is worth noting that he does now say ‘mummy’.  This proved not to be quite the emotional heart-turn-to-mushy-puddle moment that I’d anticipated – instead of yelling the word out with an enormous smile as he rushed to greet me at the door one night, as I’d always pictured, he used it to comment on the existence of my elbows.  "Mu’y elbow," he informed me gleefully, pointing.

All of this means that the proposed programme of tests now seemed like a bit of a moot point, but, well, we had them organised and I liked the idea of getting him checked out.  (Besides, I find this sort of thing fascinating.  I spent a misbegotten and geeky childhood reading books about child development and assessment testing and trying the tests out on the neighbours’ children.  My sister still swears growing up with me warped her for life.)  So, he has now had both his hearing test and something called a Schedule of Development, which was a general assessment.  (We’re still waiting for the speech therapist to get back to us.  It’s a good job he does now appear not to have a problem.)

The hearing test was on Thursday 22nd February, which was one of the days I’m out at work, so I couldn’t go along to that one.  Apparently he did appear to have a slight hearing loss, but since he also had a rotten cold at the time this was not considered to be of huge significance – they’re going to call him back for retesting in another three months.  The health visitor was kind enough to go out of her way to schedule the general assessment for the following Tuesday so that I could be there for that one, so, that morning, I arrived at the Family Health Centre and told the front desk that I had an appointment with the health visitor, whose name I apologised for not knowing.

"It’s Carol N__," the receptionist said, in a startlingly good stereo effect.  I was quite impressed by this, until I realised that the second voice had in fact come from behind me.  The health visitor had come out to meet us.

Carol had to start out by filling out the paperwork – the forms are specially designed, can’t be photocopied (from what I saw, one of them was a fold-out form and one was in multiplicate with carbon copies for every professional who might need a copy), and are expensive, so the health visitors are told not to fill them out until the child actually arrives to avoid no-shows wasting a lot of money.  This was just fine by Jamie, who got to enjoy the playhouse again for a bit while we were waiting.

I can’t guarantee that I’ve remembered all of these in the right order, or even, for that matter, that I’ve remembered them all; but these, as far as I can remember, were the tests he had to do.  In between these, I answered various questions from Carol about his development in areas not easily measured in a test setting, assuring her that he had indeed passed such crucial milestones as walking upstairs two feet at a time, using a spoon in a manner that can be charitably described as ‘skilful’ if we don’t get too close to the Trades Descriptions Act people, and rebelling against his parents.

The first test was block-building.  Jamie was less interested in the blocks than in the rest of the room (a small room that doubles as the doctor’s room on other days, and hence contains various enticing items such as a trolley just the right size for toddlers to climb on and a screen that, towards the end of the proceedings, he managed to push over in one heart-stopping moment that certainly tested Mummy’s reflexes), but she managed to coax him into building a tower of whatever the requisite height is – I think it was six or seven blocks.  He was unsuccessful at building a three-block bridge, but that’s not surprising since that’s normally of three-year-old standard.  (This did, by the way, make me glad I did spend a misbegotten childhood reading about such things – at least I knew this.  It made me wonder whether it ever gets nerve-racking for parents who don’t realise that these tests are put in to look for children advanced beyond their usual stage, and who only see that there’s something their child has been asked to do and can’t manage.)

Following the block-building, Carol moved onto formboards – those puzzles where a child has to fit shapes into holes of the corresponding shape in a board.  Jamie made short work of the basic formboard (circle, square, triangle), and with more difficulty and a bit of coaxing, managed the advanced version, in which the pieces were three very similar fish with subtle differences in shape and size.  (I think I’d have had difficulty with that one, but that’s probably more of a reflection on my skills than on his.)

For language comprehension testing, Carol put a spoon, a cup, a hairbrush and a doll on the table for Jamie to carry out particular requests.  At this, he did very well.  He successfully brushed the doll’s hair when asked to; demonstrated knowledge of prepositions by placing the spoon in the cup and chucking the brush almost off-handedly under the table; and followed a two-part request, putting the spoon in the cup and giving the doll to Mummy.  He almost achieved the giddy heights of following a three-part request, but, having put the spoon in the cup and given the doll to Mummy, he got distracted just as he was about to put the brush under the table and brushed the doll’s hair with it instead.

To test his co-ordination, he was given some of the little pegs we used to use in the old ‘Mastermind’ games of the 70s, which he had to put first into a cup and then into the holes in a board.  He managed both of those with no problems.

Carol asked me how he was with his colours, and I proudly assured her that he knew them well and sat back waiting in happy anticipation to see how impressed she’d be with his colour vocabulary – I knew that he could already name red, green, yellow, blue, black, orange, and purple, which strikes me as pretty good for a two-and-a-quarter-year-old.  (He’s since added brown to that list, incidentally.)  However, it turned out he didn’t even have to name them – all he had to do was to match each of ten coloured cards to their corresponding colours on a piece of paper.  He had that one down cold – he matched each one within seconds.  It seemed like quite an easy test to me, but apparently, as I found out in due course, it earned him a score equivalent to the 48 months level on the visual skills area.

He was less of a natural at the drawing test.  Jamie likes scribbling when he’s in the mood for it – which he apparently wasn’t on this occasion – but he regards paper and writing implements as having the primary purpose of allowing other people to write and draw things at his request.  What he wanted right then was for Carol to draw some numbers for him.  Requests to copy straight lines or draw eyes on a picture of Mummy were dismissed as uninteresting substitutes.  "Nye!" he demanded fiercely of a slightly bemused Carol.  "Three!"  She gave up on that one and moved on to seeing whether he could throw/kick a ball (I remember that this one came next, because she initially made a ball by crumpling the paper up, which interested him considerably, before bringing out a more conventional ball for him to try). 

He wasn’t too stellar at ball skills either – although he loves balls, he tends not to do that much with them, carrying them around rather than playing with them.  Or, on this occasion, standing on it, which wasn’t such a good idea as it was a rather fragile hollow plastic ball.  Meanwhile, he’d noticed the giant mirror on one wall and was finding that much more interesting.  However, Carol did manage to coax him into kicking it successfully, though she couldn’t elicit an overarm throw.  She then asked him whether he could do ‘bunny hops’, which mystified Jamie completely and left me a bit puzzled as well.  It turned out all she wanted to know there was whether he could do a proper both-feet-off-the-floor jump, which he certainly can and has been able to for some months.  As soon as I just asked him to do a jump, he managed it with no problems.  He couldn’t balance on one foot, but, again, that’s a three-year-old standard and not something he was expected to be able to manage.

Carol then brought out a book of pictures for further testing of language skills.  Jamie successfully picked out, on request, people engaged in particular activities ("Who’s drinking?") and objects with particular uses ("Which do you use to eat with?")  He didn’t, however, manage to name objects in a picture on request, which I think was just due to shyness – he certainly knew the words ‘cat’ and ‘mouse’, which were the ones he was being asked to say before Carol gave up on that one.  He also couldn’t manage negatives ("Which of these children has not got shoes on?"), which was hardly a surprise – from doing the preschool assessments as part of my GP training, I remember that this one is usually a question that baffles even children who have reached the grand age of three-and-a-half.  But he could successfully differentiate between the big spoon and the small spoon, which, again, was no surprise at all to me – since the days of the Big Snowball, the concepts of ‘big’ and ‘small’ have held utter fascination for him.  He works them into the conversation at every chance he gets.  ("Daddy bi’ car.  Mu’y sma’ car.")

Having completed all the tests, Carol went through and added up the scores and then discussed them with me as best as possible while Jamie entertained himself with what little there was in the room for him to play with and I struggled to keep him to the subcategory of things in the room that he was actually meant to be playing with.  It was at this point that we had the aforementioned Screen Toppling Incident, when I was briefly distracted by trying to actually listen to what Carol was telling me about my son and he managed to push over the screen that, in the room’s other incarnation as a doctor’s room, folds out to go around the bed and provide patients with a sketchy modicum of privacy.  Fortunately, my co-ordination skills are better than those displayed by Julie at her son’s assessment by an infinitesimal but crucial margin and, with a finesse that astonished even me when I had a chance to think about it, I pivoted round at Carol’s yell of alarm and caught the screen smoothly on its way down without even spraining anything (and then looked nonchalant and modest about it.  Catch screens with my bare hands?  P’shaw, ma’am, ‘twaren’t nuttin’.)

The test results are obtained by adding up the different scores allocated for the different items to give a total score in each developmental area tested (gross motor, manipulative, language comprehension, spoken language, etc.), and then checking the number obtained for each area on the results form, where it is possible to see what developmental age that particular number corresponds to.  It’s an inevitably imprecise method of working out a child’s strengths and weaknesses, but it does give a good general idea of how they’re doing in each area and, most importantly, of whether they have any problems that need addressing.

Jamie did not have any problems that need addressing.  In visual skills, as I said, he scored at the 48-month level; in language comprehension, at the 36-month level, thanks to his mastery of pronouns, the two-part command, and concept of different sizes.  In all other areas, he was scoring within the normal range for his age (30 months for manipulative skills, 24 months for all others – the test is not precise enough to give a 27-month reading.)

Carol says that, in spite of his spectacular progress, we should still keep our appointment with the speech therapist when we get it, just in case she does have any further advice.  Oh, yes – and we’re also supposed to feed him French bread, because it’s chewy and will help build up some of the necessary mouth muscles.  (Substitutes of equivalent chewiness are perfectly acceptable; she used French bread only as an example.)  I told her proudly that I’d nursed him for sixteen months, which would hopefully have laid a good foundation as far as building up oral musculature was concerned, and she agreed that this was all to the good.  But, apart from the French bread and the distant prospect of an eventual appointment with the speech therapist, no further intervention is needed at this point – Jamie is right on track, except for the areas in which he’s nicely ahead.

Since I knew this anyway, I suppose getting official approval of it shouldn’t really be such a satisfying moment – what, I’m waiting for some stranger with her forms and tests to tell me what I already know about my own child?  But it was.  The frustrating thing about raising a child is that it takes so long for any results to show up – on one level you may know that all that reading to them, talking to them, and otherwise stimulating their tiny minds is bound to be having some sort of beneficial effect in the long term, but that sometimes seems very distant on a day-to-day level.  The copy of the form I was given to take away, with the cross-hatching in the boxes corresponding to his developmental levels, is immediately available hard evidence that all that effort really is doing something.

Besides, I got to see a real-life developmental assessment.  And Jamie got to play with a real pretend playhouse.  So we both counted it a satisfying and worthwhile day.

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