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.


  1. bah, it makes me sick that someone who hasn't even had children can spout all this nonsense!

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  2. I read that babies left to cry respond with a kind of physiological shut down very quickly. They begin to conserve resources as if they will starve.

    Very young humans have no concept of the future, so if you are not feeding them NOW then they have no concept that you may do so subsequently.

    Another piece of info I read (at some point) is that children in the USA are 5 times more likely to die before the age of 5 if not breastfed.

    We have practiced natural infant hygiene with the younger 2 of our 4 children. I believe that this natural method requires carers to be mindful in ways that make great sense for a babies wellfare and survival. Nappies are only more useful if you are choosing to ignore and switch off. You transfer the work elsewhere (washing nappies, working to pay for them, and damage the environment) in order to be able to distance yourself from your infant.

    Breaking a child's will (with fear, force, guilt, or Gina Ford methods) prevents the child from developing a will that they can use to overcome their impulses (to be aggressive, etc.) It makes for a person at sea, someone who cannot direct themselves, and cannot know their own wishes and needs.
    I've seen the effect of this first hand, as I parented my eldest daughter more traditionally, and my 3 younger ones according to attachment parenting and non-coercion practices. I am watching my eldest daughter gradually deschooling herself (she was schooled) and gradually battling to overcome the coercion she grew up with and begin to listen to her own needs/desires.

    It took me getting to near 40 and having a severe depression to begin to do what she is doing at 22. Thank goodness she won't have to wait so long to take possession of her own life!

    Thanks for this post Jem. It was concise and very useful. I'll certainly link to it.

    best wishes

  3. Great post, thank you.
    The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland also covers how methods such as crying it out and controlled crying can have serious adverse affects to emotional development in a child which can cause issues later in life.

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  5. We had to sleep train our son.

    The most important thing I see that came from sleep training our first born was that stress levels dropped significantly within weeks after our son started to sleep all night.

    Before, he would be waking up every hour/two hours and that was just pure sleep deprivation torture for all of us and you could see just by looking at us that we were going insane. Really, people would comment and ask us if we were ok. In three days of using the method he was crying for a few hours all together... before that, he was constantly cranky during the day and constantly crying.

    My wife wrote an article about our experiences called Every child can learn to sleep