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.
"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.