If you want to watch mothers go mental, mention Gina Ford’s Contented Little Baby Book. They will either tell you it changed their life and grip your arm with that half-crazed devotion of an evangelical convert or they will tell you it is evil and grip your arm with that half-crazed fury of someone who has escaped a cult.
All this, over a little book by a woman who doesn’t have any children? With its highly regimented approach (days are broken into minute-by-minute commands about what you and your baby should be doing), has divided parents wherever it’s been published. For first-time mother Lauren Quaintance it seemed a godsend. Until it wasn’t. First published in Good Weekend in The Sydney Morning Herald, Lauren writes…
“Before I fell pregnant, my entire experience with babies amounted to briefly holding other people’s newborns. As a teenager, I had occasionally earned pocket money babysitting, but the children were always older and they were almost always asleep. My job mostly involved raiding the family pantry and watching late-night television. As an adult, I’d had very little to do with children; siblings and friends who started families before us lived far away. So, it was fair to assume, I thought, that I wouldn’t be a “natural” when it came to parenting. How could I be? I had never actually been alone with a baby. As my belly swelled, it was clear to me that I would need someone – or something – to tell me what to do after the baby arrived. My own mother had died a few years before, and my husband’s mother lived a three-hour plane journey away in New Zealand.
My sister-in-law, who is my age and was herself pregnant with her third child, told me about Gina Ford’s Contented Little Baby Book. She had followed the British maternity nurse’s routine with her first two children and both slept through the night before they were 10 weeks old. This had allowed her to return to her job as a partner in a law firm after six months, and to continue mountain biking and writing in her spare time. In short, she had managed to have a baby (almost three, in fact) and to have a life.
As my due date drew closer, I read and reread Ford’s book. I made my husband read it and typed up a summary of the main points and distributed it to close family members. I ignored her tips on nursery decoration (“Plain walls can be brightened up with a colourful frieze and perhaps a matching pelmet and tie-backs”), laundry (“Flat cotton sheets should be dried so they are slightly damp for easier and smoother ironing”) and baby clothes (“When selecting a snowsuit … avoid fancy designs with fur around the hood or dangling toggles”). But I puzzled over diagrams of how to make up the
cot, followed her instruction to have a dimmer switch installed in the nursery, and worried that our house had bare floorboards – not carpet, as recommended. The hour-by-hour schedule certainly seemed regimented (she tells you not just when to eat breakfast but what to eat: “Cereal, toast and a drink no later than 8am”) and the tone was more than a little condescending. But overall it made sense. By structuring a baby’s daytime feeds and sleeps, Ford wrote, you could encourage them to take most of their daily food requirements during their parents’ waking hours, and to sleep for their longest stretch at night. Although my husband was happy to go along with most of it, he was appalled by Ford’s directive to not make eye contact with your baby during night feeds. “I’m not going to not look at our baby,” he said firmly.
I had never heard of Ford before I bought her book, which was first published 11 years ago, but it soon became apparent that other people had. When my
father mentioned at a dinner party that his pregnant daughter was reading a book by someone called Gina Ford, his hosts were horrified. “It’s child abuse,” they said bluntly. Another friend, who had had a baby a few months before, hissed, “I hate Gina Ford.” Hate? How could you summon that depth of feeling for a maternity nurse turned childcare author?
Still, I needed to follow something. So I just stopped saying Ford’s name aloud, and buried her book at the bottom of my hospital bag. It would be my little secret.
Gina Ford has been described as the “Howard Hughes of childcare” since she is so reclusive. Despite being Britain’s best-selling childcare author, she has almost never been photographed. Official publicity images show a puffy woman with hooded eyes, bleached hair and thick make-up sheathed in a nursery-blue wrap. In a rare interview with The Guardian, Ford described her hardscrabble upbringing as the only child of a single mother on a farm in Scotland. Her mother suffered from depression and took an unconventional approach to raising her daughter; Ford slept in her mother’s bed until she was 11 and blames her insomnia on the fact that she never learnt to get a proper night’s sleep on her own. She and her mother, she said, were “up half the night singing Tom Jones and dancing”.
She left school at 16, did a catering course and later became a maternity nurse. She didn’t train – and after an early divorce had no children of her own – but went on to look after babies for more than 200 families.
Her book, first published in 1999, immediately sold half a million copies without any marketing. Now in its third edition, it has sold one million copies and been translated into Spanish, Hebrew and Chinese. She now has more than half a dozen titles that are variations on a theme – The Contented Little Baby Book of Weaning, The Contented Toddler Years and so on – and claims to have secured 25 per cent of the childcare book market. Gina Ford acolytes reportedly include celebrities such as Kate Winslet and Heather Mills.
But Gina Ford has also been plagued by controversy. In a documentary aired on Britain’s Channel 5 in 2007, a psychologist compared her methods to training a dog. (One of Ford’s employees who appeared in the program, Clare Byam-Cook, responded, “I think well-trained dogs are lovely, happy dogs and well-trained babies are lovely, happy babies.”) For her part, Ford seems to have been wounded by the criticism and claims she has been miscast as the Cruella de Vil of the baby world. “You’d think, by listening to them, that my mother brought me into this world to boil babies and eat them for dinner,” she told London’s Daily Mail. “I’ve devoted my life to helping mothers and I’m trashed left, right and centre.”
Ford is by no means the first controversial childcare author. In her history of childcare writing, Dream Babies: Childcare
Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford, British writer Christina Hardyment says that as well as the usual rota of nannies, doctors and psychologists, philosophers, religious gurus and even admen have all featured on the babycare best-seller lists at different times. One of those so-called experts advocated firing off pistols next to babies and dunking them in cold water to harden them up. The most popular baby manual in the early part of last century was New Zealand accountant-turned-doctor Truby King’s 1913 book, Feeding and Care of Baby, which detailed a strict regimen that even extended to bowel movements and advised against spoiling children.
Then the ominous-sounding, Yale-educated paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock revolutionised thinking by telling parents to “trust yourself – you know more than you think you do”. Published in 1946, Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was perfect for more permissive times; the war had ended and with it the years of denial and austerity. His book gave parents licence to pick up and cuddle their babies. A staggering 50 million people bought it. In the past 25 years, most experts (Robin Barker, Penelope Leach) have taken their cue from Spock. Now it’s almost come full circle: Gina Ford, Hardyment observes, has more than a hint of Truby King.
No doubt part of the explanation for this retrograde trend is that professional women who become mothers later are used to being in control. Writing in The Times, Libby Purves suggests that “formulaic managerialism” has infected parenting. “We are encouraged to see babies as a management challenge, and fit them into complex working lives … The idea of applying ergonomic timetables to babies suits the anxious professional woman, and makes media stars of those who promise to make early motherhood efficient.”
All of which might be true, but it overlooks the fact that many of those same professional women have no choice but to try to get their babies to follow a predictable schedule – and to sleep through the night as soon as possible – because they need to return to work. A laissez-faire approach to mothering (feeding on demand, co-sleeping and so forth) assumes that you are able to devote yourself entirely to your baby for at least its first year of life. That is merely a pipe dream for many women who are, if not the main breadwinner, then certainly earning a good portion of the family loaf. And in many cases they’re learning on the job alone without the support of the family, friends and neighbours that previous generations of women could count on. It’s no wonder they turn to Amazon, ordering books by the boxful, all of which promise to restore calm to a chaotic household.
Another explanation that fits neatly with the idea of a generation of overanxious professional women is that (like Ford herself) today’s new mothers are a product of their own anarchic upbringing. As the children of hippie parents, we’re supposedly embracing the strict rules we wish we’d had as children.
But why does Gina Ford attract such opprobrium? It seems that just about everyone has a deeply held opinion about her and, among new mothers, she provokes the kind of invective rarely associated with post-baby bliss. It’s obvious enough
that you might be frustrated – or even furious – with Ford if you’ve tried her methods and they did not deliver the “contented baby” you’d been promised (or at least one who sleeps through the night). But it seems that you don’t even need to own a copy of Ford’s book to find her despicable. Mothers so often feel they are being judged; I wonder if the spectre of “Gina Ford babies” who sleep and eat on cue makes women whose babies do not conform to any pattern feel like failures.
On my first night in the post-natal ward after a 36-hour labour that left me utterly depleted, I summoned the courage to ask the midwife to bring my baby girl back from the nursery every four hours to be fed. Ford says that, even if a mother’s milk has not come in, four-hourly feeding in those first few days promotes milk supply. “Why?” the midwife asked. “They don’t need it. Unless you plan to follow a routine.” I whispered that, yes, as a matter of fact I did. She gave me a tight smile and left. The baby was brought back every four hours.
After four nights in hospital and just three days at home with family to help, I was left alone for 10 hours a day with my tiny, pinkish newborn. Stationed on the couch, where I was often breastfeeding for an hour at a time, I would hold The Contented Little Baby Book in my left hand, constantly glancing at the clock on the wall as I tried to keep up with the relentless schedule. (See break-out box, previous page.) Apart from the lengthy breastfeeding sessions, Ford recommends expressing milk twice a day to boost supply – an interminable process that left me with even less time to shower, dress and catch up on much-needed sleep.
If the baby started to get drowsy before Ford said she was due to go to bed, I would put her on her play mat and “encourage” her to have a kick. Many new mothers are loath to wake a sleeping baby, but I had no problem waking my little girl to feed her, confident in the knowledge that if she had more milk during the day – and no more than the prescribed five hours’ sleep – she would be less likely to wake all night. And at first it seemed to be working; by the time she was four weeks old, she was waking up just once for a feed and settling back to sleep until somewhere between 6am and 7am. All that expressing meant that we had plenty of milk for my husband to do the last feed of the day at 10.30pm with a bottle and I could get to bed early. I was tired, but coping.
Then, when my baby was about five weeks old, things started to go wrong. As it got close to her nap time, she would cry incessantly and draw her legs up to her chest as if in pain. Under Ford’s regimen, rocking a baby to sleep is absolutely forbidden since it creates the wrong “sleep association”, but she does not offer any other techniques for getting a baby to sleep. Desperate for help, I ordered a DVD from one of the many women who market themselves as “baby whisperers”, which demonstrated how to rhythmically pat a baby on the bottom to help her fall asleep. It worked but it was a protracted, frustrating exercise. When I told the local health nurse about this, she gently suggested that my baby might be overtired.
Ford says that a baby as young as four weeks can stay awake for two hours; most midwives will tell you 90 minutes at the most. When I started looking at my baby for signs that she was tired – clenched fists, jerky limb movements – I realised that sometimes, usually in the morning, she needed to go to bed an hour after she had woken up. This made following Ford’s routines tricky since she would often wake up before she was due for her next feed – and would be tired again before the next scheduled nap unless I could get her to sleep longer – but I persevered.
Then, at 10 weeks, my baby stopped sleeping for the allotted two to 2 1/2 hours at lunchtime (a key plank of the Ford routine), waking, instead, after 45 minutes. I patted and patted to no avail; I wasn’t prepared to leave her to cry. She was smiling and did not look the least bit tired. In her book, Ford says that this can sometimes happen and her solution is to take the baby into bed with you, or out in the pram to help them sleep for the full two hours. In her experience, Ford writes, it can take “a week or even 10 days” to correct the sleep cycle.
Since my baby had never slept well in her pram, I strapped her to my chest in a front pack and carried her around the streets for two hours a day during Sydney’s summer while she slept. I did this for a month. And it didn’t work; every time I put her down in her cot for her lunchtime nap, she woke after 45 minutes.
Then the final insult: at 12 weeks my baby started waking up all night. She had never slept through, but now she woke up every hour between midnight and 7am. This went on for four torturous weeks. I was so tired that my limbs were leaden and my mind permanently clouded. Sometimes, I felt as if I were drowning; I’d feel panicked and my view of the world was gauzy, as if I were under water. During this time
I remember standing in the bathroom one morning in my dressing gown, sobbing to my exhausted husband, “I just don’t know how I am going to get through today.”
I frantically read The Contented Little Baby Book again, cross-referencing between sections, looking for clues, but it didn’t have a solution. (To be fair, the nurses from the early childhood centre and Tresillian couldn’t help, either.) Ford is so certain that babies on her routine will sleep through by the magical 12 weeks that there are almost no instructions about what to do about night waking after this time. Her rationale is that when a baby stops being fed in the night, taking all their kilojoules during the day, they won’t wake up any more. My baby stopped needing a night feed at four months, but she never stopped waking up.
Gallingly, as I reread the book, I noticed that whenever Ford talks about things not going to plan, she shifts the blame back to the parents, suggesting they have created bad sleep associations or not read the book properly. Not read it properly? I could recite whole passages by heart. At that point, I finally lost my temper and hurled the book across the room.
Eight months after I snuck The Contented Little Baby Book into the delivery suite, I have a baby who neither consistently sleeps through the night nor sleeps for any length of time during the day. I stopped reading Gina Ford or any other baby manuals months ago and my little girl seems contented enough – all gummy kisses and ingenuous smiles. When my father visits, and hears about yet another broken night’s sleep, he teases, “Hasn’t the baby read the book yet?”
After all that, would I do it again? Not exactly. Gina Ford did teach me some useful principles about how to structure a baby’s feeds and sleeps (and frankly I wouldn’t have known where to start without her). And although I loathed expressing, having my husband do the 10.30pm feed was a lifesaver for me – and a lovely, practical way for him to get involved. But next time, if there is another baby, I won’t take Gina Ford or any other baby expert quite so literally; I won’t look for logic where it doesn’t necessarily exist. I’d like to think I’ll be more relaxed, but that really depends on much sleep I’m getting.
And my sister-in-law? Her third baby slept through the night, on schedule, at 11 weeks.”
This story originally appeared in The Good Weekend magazine. Lauren Quainance is Managing Editor of magazines for Fairfax where she oversees a portfolio of newspaper-inserted titles such as Good Weekend, Sunday Life and Sport&Style.
Prior to this she was editor of the(sydney)magazine and launch editor of New Zealand’s Sunday magazine. In her previous life as a writer she lived in London and New York and wrote about topics as diverse as people smuggling, terrorism and her addiction to Diet Coke.
UPDATE: I hadn’t originally added my own comment to this post but after some gentle prompting from MM reader Caz (below), I will.
I wrote about The Contented Baby and my experience with it in my book (buy it! buy it!).
I mocked my friend for using it.
I had a difficult baby and tried it.
I loved it.
I hated it.
I think there are certain kinds of people who are drawn to it. Control freaks. People who are highly organised. People who like reading instruction manuals and following them.
But clearly, it doesn’t work for every woman or every baby.
And all the expressing was a bit of a nightmare – gave me mastitis many many times while I was trying to follow the minute-by-minute instructions.
So I guess my opinion is that when you are scared or insecure or uncertain or exhausted or any combination of those things, you will try anything.
But if it’s making you unhappy or feel like a failure or if your baby seems distressed or not at all interested in being told what to do at 8:46am, then put your book down and LISTEN to yourself and your baby.
Have you had any experience with The Contented Little Baby book? How did it go? Is there another book you swear by?