Tuesday, 28 July 2009

So what's wrong with Gina Ford anyway?

Gina Who?
Gina Ford is the author of several parenting books, including 'The Contented Little Baby'. Her methods involve getting a baby, from birth, used to the routine which she prescribes. Some commentators have likened her approach to animal training. Deviation from her timetable is not allowed as this will give the baby the idea that it is in control of the parents, when in fact the parents should set the rules for the baby. Whilst some persevere to follow her method 100%, most Gina Ford advocates seem to use her ideas as loose guidelines for working out their own method of introducing routine. Many of these also admit that they would not introduce routine to a baby under 5 months of age, especially if breastfed.

Gina Ford also advocates the use of 'controlled crying' - leaving a baby to cry for a period, not picking it up (which is the parent's natural reaction), and gradually extending the time for which the baby is left alone to cry so that it eventually gets used to, say, not being fed when it is hungry, or going to sleep on its own. To her credit, she has modified her method over recent years and no longer tells parents to leave the baby to 'cry it out'. For a scientific view of what physiologically happens when a baby is left to cry (and much much more), see Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain by Sue Gerhardt. This book illustrates how such emotionally distant parenting styles create brain structures and chemical imbalances that leave children prone to rage, aggression, hypertension, violence, depression and addiction in adulthood.

Research by Bell and Ainsworth (Maternal Responding and Infant Crying, 1972) showed that babies who are left to cry actually end up, by the end of their first year, crying more than infants who are attended to. Research also shows that by tuning in to an infant's needs, not only is the bond between parent and child strengthened, but the baby also learns alternative ways of communicating besides crying, and this stimulates the infant's physical development.

Certain experts (e.g. Professor James McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame) and organisations have expressed concern that her methods may be
potentially damaging to the child's emotional development. There is also evidence that leaving an infant to go to sleep alone increases the chance of sleep apnoea - times where a baby will stop breathing for a period. Unattended sleep apnoea is strongly linked to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or 'cot death').

These methods should not be confused with the more extreme methods advocated Claire Verity. Gina Ford herself has condemned Claire Verity's methods as tantamount to child abuse!

It must be noted that Gina Ford has no children but worked as maternity 'nurse', i.e. looked after other people's babies and therefore had no desire, need, or innate instinct to form a long term attachment with the baby. Instead she would have been keen on babies making her as little work as possible. The same is true of most other 'baby gurus'.

On the other hand, Dr William Sears (a paediatrician who therefore holds actual qualifications in infant development) and his wife, Martha Sears (a paediatric nurse, and also therefore qualified in child development - Gina Ford holds no qualifications at all) have eight children. They are the writers of the highly recommended 'The Baby Book' amongst many other publications. Unlike Ms Ford's book, The Baby Book is not a prescriptive system. The advice is given and it is up to the reader how they apply it. It also has huge amounts of information on all aspects of a child's development from birth to two years old.

Gina Ford often brushes aside the criticism that she is not herself a mother by saying that she has worked closely with 300 or so families and it is her objective view of these that informs her method. If the numbers game is important, it should be noted that Dr & Mrs Sears, as well as having their own eight children, have had careers in paediatrics extending beyond 30 years and have had contact with possibly thousands of children over that time.

Basically the problem with routines is that they ignore the fact that different babies have different needs on different days. By ignoring this fact the parents are never given the chance to learn to 'read' their baby, understand what each different noise and wiggle means, and react to it (this includes getting it wrong and looking at your crying baby thinking, "What?!?!" - which can be very uncomfortable of course).

"If it's 2 o'clock you should be having a nap!" announces the parent. quite unaware that baby is desperately trying to signal that it wants to socialise, or perhaps is hungry. One month old and already the parent and child can't communicate. What is just as sad is that babies are born equipped and ready to tell their parents what they need (what babies need and what they want are inarguably the same thing; they have not the experience, brain development or language to formulate wants which are separate from their needs). By sticking to a routine, parents are teaching their baby that they have no control over their life and no one is going to listen to them. This is called 'learnt helplessness' by psychologists and is associated with Pavlovian conditioning. Children eventually give up trying to be heard and even fail to recognise that they have needs outside of what other people want them to do. This is what Gina Ford mistakes as contentment, but there is a grave difference between being contented with what is given and having given up asking for what is needed. Clearly there are emotional repercussions as these factors come into play.

Imagine if you were told you would be given a routine for when you went to the toilet (NB given, not asked to suggest). When you did number ones and when you did number twos would be decided by someone else according to their routine, and you would be forced to stick to it. Clearly that's crazy, but no crazier than thinking a routine (invented by a person with no qualifications and no children of her own) is going to suit every baby in the world for every single day of their lives.

All the major breastfeeding organisations are totally against these 'routine' type books because they sabotage a woman's chance of successfully breastfeeding by interrupting the perfect dance a baby and the woman's body engage in, whereby the baby tells the breasts how much milk it needs for each stage of development by how often it feeds. There are hundreds of health risks to not breastfeeding, for both the baby and the mother, some of them pretty serious, so sticking to a routine could be said to carry serious health risks. We will be posting more on the wonders of breastfeeding later in a separate post!

There have been claims that Gina Ford is now 'breastfeeding friendly'. The fact remains that the use of routine disrupts the mother's milk supply. To maintain supply, to allow for baby's growth spurts, she has introduced the regular use of a breast pump to stop her supply dropping off. This is an artificial and time-consuming way to reproduce an effect that would otherwise come naturally and unconsciously.

You can't spoil a baby with too much love, understanding or contact!
There is a strange idea amongst baby gurus like Gina Ford that babies are manipulative and have to be shown that they must do what they are told by their parents from the get go. That just seems like such a tragic way to start the most important relationships that baby will have: being dominated and their voice ignored at every turn. The idea that too much attention to a baby's wants and needs amounts to coddling and will 'spoil' the child is quite a modern invention and not one borne out by experience.
"The spoiling theory began in the early part of [the 20th] century when parents turned over their intuitive childrearing to "experts"; unfortunately, the childcare thinkers at the time advocated restraint and detachment (i.e., formulas for childcare), along with scientifically produced artificial baby milk – "formula" for feeding babies. They felt that if you held your baby a lot, fed on cue, and responded to cries, you would spoil and create a clingy, dependent baby. There was no scientific basis to this spoiling theory, just unwarranted fears and opinions."
- Dr William Sears
There also seems to be a bizarre idea out there that babies like to 'know what's coming next'. This is attributing them with powers they don't need or possess. What babies know is how they feel right now; if they feel hungry or lonely or contented or excited, etc. they don't lie there thinking, "When I have finished my feed I'll be taken to bed for two hours, then get a kick about on the play mat and then I'll be fed again." They actually think "Mmmmmmmmmmmmm..." and feel secure and contented. Again it is contrary to what is known about child development to attribute to them the brain function to have any concept of predicting a sequence of events based on past experience beyond the most limited situations.

For me, it comes down to parents' attitudes to the baby and to parenthood, the extent to which they are willing to let these influence their lifestyles, and for how long. There is no doubt in my mind that pretty much every parent loves their child and wants what is best for them. However, it seems to me that many are intent on reconstructing their lives as much as possible and as soon as possible, exactly as they were before their new arrival. I have met mothers who refused to breastfeed their baby, or ended doing so after a few weeks, so that they could leave the infant with a minder as soon as possible, mainly so that they could go out drinking and clubbing again. I try not to be judgemental of other parents, but some people make it really really hard.

The first few months with a baby can be exhausting and the temptation can be to try to force a baby into a routine just to get some extra sleep, or with the thought in the back of one's mind that eventually mum will have to go back to work, and the baby will have to be 'trained' whether it likes it or not. In our experience, learning to follow your baby's cues and signals is not only extremely rewarding, and engages you in a deeper relationship with your offspring, but it also makes the later stages of raising them so much easier because you have taken the time to understand them, and that understanding grows and develops as they do. By 3 to 4 months, many babies will start to develop their own routine anyway, which can be gently and sensitively encouraged and adjusted by the parents.

Our concern is that the 'instant' results that may sometimes come out of using the Gina Ford method, or other similar 'parent-led' systems, can distract people from the long-term negative impact on a child's emotional development, or from the increased risks of SIDS, or the negative implications for health of the resultant failure to maintain breastfeeding (don't forget that the World Health Organisation advises on-demand breastfeeding continue for at least 2 years).

It is an unfortunate rule of thumb in the business of raising children that there are no universal solutions, and very few quick ones. Gina Ford's attempt to provide a one-size-fits-all solution to the frustrations of parents overlooks some potentially serious problems.

Every Child Matters?

I guess I should explain the title of this blog. Every Child Matters is the name of the UK Government's initiative "to improve outcomes for all children and young people." It is much criticised and I will probably blog on the subject another time when I have a chance, though it's an enormous subject.

Suffice it to say that, in the opinion of many, what the Government is doing as a matter of its overall policy, and its attitude to children, parents and families, is the very antithesis of the idea that every child matters. I hope this blog will show what it really means to believe that children matter; the thought, care, research, empathy and understanding that is required in order to raise children at this point in the early 21st Century. My attitude is that every child really does matter, and that in the vast majority of cases the people to whom they matter most, and who is in the best position to help them is their parents and family, and other people that live with them every day and love them the most.

Throughout this blog I will be referring to parents and family. By these terms I will also mean adoptive or step-parents and families. The natural bond between genetic parents and children - and between siblings, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. for that matter - should not be underestimated. There are biological imperatives at work in such relationships that have great influence over a child's development, the parents' attitudes toward that child, and so on. However, that is a matter to be dealt with separately. In the huge majority of areas, the important thing is the existence of a loving, supportive parental model, whether or not the actual genetic parent.

Why the heck does the world need another parenting blog?

Why indeed....

I was talking to my friend and colleague Andy today and he hit me with the news that his partner is expecting a baby, due in November. Whilst I was reeling with the delight that this news obviously brings, I was then sucker-punched by a related revelation that came out of nowhere:

"I'm quite interested in Gina Ford's approach."

My instinctive reaction was to scream "No!!!!" and grab him by the shoulders and shake him until the Contented Little Baby book fell from his innocent fingers and every grubby idea from it was shaken from his brain.

But I didn't.

Instead I said I'd give him a few links to give him another point of view.

And really, that's the reason for this blog. I have lost count of the number of times I'm innocently asked my opinion on child-related matters. When one has a child, it becomes the instant subject of at least 50% of conversations with others who also have children. This is why childless people think parents are boring. We're not boring; we just inhabit a different world.

So I shall, as the mood takes me, blog some stuff here about anything and everything child-related, from birth to breast feeding to sleeping to eating to potties and nappies and on to education, discipline and anything else that seems appropriate. As my DD is 6 and my DS is now 3 months I expect I will be finding new things to find out about, decide about, and put into practice for a long time to come.

So, this blog is not meant to be prescriptive. It's not a 'how to' guide to dealing with your kids. It is meant to be a guide to what we do with ours, the whys, wherefores, and the results. Obviously we think it's the best way!

It is the right of the parent to raise their child as they see fit. It is the responsibility of the parent to get as much information about how they do this as they can before deciding on a course of action. This blog is another drop in the ocean of such information.

A plea also: please do interact with this blog, but try to be constructive, never be abusive of anyone, however strongly you disagree with them, and if you make assertions, please reference them as well as you can. A lot of our choices in how we raise our children are based on lots of research and reading and discussion and experience (props to my DW Roxy who should have a t-shirt made with the slogan "Born to Research!" Hopefully the time and effort will come across in the posts as well as being evident in the future lives of our children!

I hope that, should anyone discover and comment on this blog, it will be a learning experience for me too. If it proves a popular way for people to combine their knowledge and experience, maybe I'll start a Wiki!