By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Baby expert Gina Ford has threatened legal action over "gross personal attacks" about her on a website for mothers. Not usually known for their vitriol, why does she bring out such extreme reactions in parents?
Gina Ford: Offended by comments
To find a parent who is neutral about Gina Ford is rare - very rare. You're probably more likely to see a Cross River gorilla and there are only 200 of them left in the world.
Ford is a baby guru whose advice is either loved or loathed. A former maternity nurse, she is known as the Queen of Routine and advocates introducing a strict structure to the lives of new parents and their babies in The Contented Little Baby Book.
In general terms parents tend to fall into two camps when it comes to Ford: those who think she is the wicked witch of childcare and those who hail her as the saviour of modern parenting.
But she is dividing opinion even more after instructing her lawyers to demand the closure of a popular internet site for mothers because it published comments from readers that she says are defamatory.
Mumsnet - set up and run by mothers - says the threatened legal action is a blow to free speech and "wholly disproportionate''. But it has taken the "extreme step" of asking members to stop discussing Ford.
"It is a surreal and rather sad moment," says the website, equating the ban to "barring discussion of Manchester United from a football phone-in".
In a statement, Ford says she has no objection whatsoever to people discussing or disagreeing with her advice and methods concerning childcare.
"What has caused me so much upset has been the defamatory campaign waged against me as a person in which I have been described in the most vile and disgusting terms."
Since the book's publication in 1999, it has completely divided the parenting population and continues to do so. It has also become a bestseller, shifting over half a million copies.
She advocates a strict daily routine - for both parent and child - broken up into five-minute slots. For many it is "military" in its precision, the baby must be awake and fed by 7am and parents must have their breakfast by 8am so they slot into the baby's day.
After that the baby must be fed every four hours and allowed to cry, for up to an hour if necessary, so they learn they will not always be picked up. Parents are also advised not to make eye contact with their child when feeding it at certain times.
"What the baby actually feels, wants and needs doesn't seem to matter," says Julia Drayton, who has two girls aged two and four months. "She seems to think babies are just out to disrupt their parents' lives, there is no time to get to know your baby and form a real bond.
"It's about making them fit in with what the parents think will cause the least amount of work or disruption to their lives. In my opinion you should work round the baby. They eventually find their own routine."
FORD'S BEDTIME ROUTINE
Baby must be fed by no later than 6.15pm
Must be fed in nursery with dim lights and no eye contact
If baby did not empty first breast at 5pm, give it 5-10mins on it before putting him on the full breast
Allow a good 20-25 minutes on a full breast
Very important baby is in bed two hours from when it last woke
Ford worked as a maternity nurse for more than 12 years and has looked after more than 300 babies, but has no formal childcare qualifications. She also doesn't have any children of her own, a detail that has prompted many a heated debate.
Ford has reportedly said in the past that she has a "natural instinct" for looking after children.
Her defenders say people use the fact she has no children of her own as an argument that she doesn't know what she is talking about.
"But why does having a baby for six months make me more of an expert than someone who has worked with children for years - it doesn't," says Claire Winsome, who has a six-month-old son and is on the pro-side of the Ford debate.
"The fact he is my own child means I love him in a way no other woman could, but that doesn't automatically mean I can look after him better than anyone else on the planet. The truth is there are times when I'd prefer to be living with Gina Ford than my own husband - she'd be able to help me more.
"Most people I meet who dislike her still rock their baby to get them to sleep or have to walk them around in the buggy for miles. Their kids usually still wake several times a night as well."
Claire did not have family nearby to support her and says the book took the place of her mother. "I didn't have a clue what to do and needed to be told," she says.
How society has evolved over the years is a key reason why childcare experts have become such big business. Fewer people now live close to their families, so someone or something else has to take their place.
But it also creates problems, says Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting.
Baby up by 7am, says Ford
With so much conflicting advice from childcare experts parents do not know whom they can trust, but one thing is made clear to them - they cannot trust their own judgement, he says.
And people have such polarised views on experts like Gina Ford because parenting is no longer just about raising a child.
"With Gina Ford it is nearly always a love/hate thing," he says. "That's because parenting is no longer about just bringing up a child, it is a statement of who the parent is and if people see someone doing things differently they see it as a threat to themselves.
"My parents viewed their job as bringing me up and that was it, but the parenting culture has changed. Now a child is seen as a reflection of the parent. If the child gets bad grades at school, they are seen as failing and so are the parents."
But there is a growing group of mothers who have decided to pick and chose what advice they want from the vast range of childcare experts available.
"I took what I thought was sensible advice from Gina Ford, but not the whole regimented routine," says Anne Smith. "I did that with other experts too. Mothers need to find the confidence to do what they want, but not feel embarrassed if they need to totally follow experts like Ford.
"Parenting is hard enough without us turning on each other."
Here is a selection of your comments.
I don't loathe Gina Ford, but the one book of hers that I read made me feel utterly incompetent as a mother - I knew I was never going to be able to manage that routine, and my baby didn't seem to do what he was supposed to, ever... Eventually, my sister hid the book from me, and I felt a lot better!
Now I'm more confident, I have a quick peek at the sleep routines every so often as a rough guide, but no more. I think that all the effort involved in creating such a strict routine means your needs as a parent are subsumed to those of your child, rather than the other way round. There surely has to be a middle path.
Sian, cambridge, UK
Useful as toddlers and babies like repitition but the advice should not be taken as written in stone. I cannot see why it is so controversial. Yes I am indeed a rare species - a neutral on Gina Ford.
I started out from a strongly cynical position about this book. That didn't last long. Gina Ford saved my sanity. My wife and I used the book, and it worked almost to perfection. Many people we know who adopted a more laissez-faire attitude have babies who wake frequently during the night. These babies may be "finding their own routine" but sooner or later they are going to have to sleep through - so when do you want to suffer that pain?
Although the book is often said to present a very prescriptive view of routines, I don't interpret it that way. I think it gives new parents a strict regime, but after that what it really gives you is the TOOLS to fix problems when they arise. If you are interpreting it completely literally, all the time, I have some magic beans you might be interested in too.
Regarding the charge that Gina Ford has no children of her own... well, really, most doctors haven't had cancer. Does that mean they can't treat it?
Andy, Oxford, UK
I'm happy for those parents who have success with Ford's method, but surely it is not possible to force all babies to conform to such a rigid plan. And it's probably far from ideal for breastfed babies, who should be fed on demand as nature surely intended! Allowing babies to cry for an hour is just cruel to both baby and parents. It is these sorts of emotional problems which stir up so much resentment in Ford. Parents need to try various methods until they find one which works.
Will Duffay, London
My advice is don't listen to any so-called 'experts' but just follow your nose and do what seems right at the time. Your instincts about your children have been developed over several million years and are probably good enough.
I think that as with a lot of childcare advice, you should use what you find helpful and discard the rest - if it works for you great, but don't drive yourself mad trying to stick to something that clearly isn't going to help you or your baby. At the end of the day, the parent is the one who will end up feeling miserable and guilty if they can't fulfil someone else's expectations of how they should be raising their child - why put yourself through it if you don't have to?!
CN, WORCS, UK
I think it's a little extreme to say ALL either love or despise Gina's routine. With my first child I needed some structure and using Gina Ford's CLB helped to create a routine but I didn't follow it to the letter - I still used my gut instinct in each situation. I do intend to use her book again now for my second child on the way as I've forgotten almost everything in 5 years. I think she is great at giving some much needed help and advice, especially if your baby doesn't naturally settle easily, but for goodness sake you can still use your own head. There is no need to berate the woman as though she is trying to control our minds!
Shelley Smyth, Rode, Somerset
It seems that there should be a happy medium between the two extremes. A baby should have certain rules and regulations in his or her life, and should not have free reign in the house. As a parent your job starts the minute the child is born and you have to ensure that the baby begins to understand when it is supposed to feed, sleep, etc. However raising a baby is not boot camp and there should be plenty of time to connect and get to know your baby. While you have to set boundaries, there should still be room to bond, learn, and relax.
I have to say that I agree with Anne Smith. Gina Ford is only offering her advice - you don't have to take her literally! The time with your baby goes so quickly anyway, so just enjoy the moment. I have 2 children Max 8 and Keira nearly 2 and there were times with both of them that I thought I would go mad and 24 hours later it's forgotten. It's like everything in life - moderation. You pick the bits that suit you and your family life and if it doesn't work then change it. I personally feel that strict routines can be stressful but if you can establish your own little routine - you suddenly turn around and your baby is 8!!
Michele Bidgood, London
I have no children as yet, but when i do i know i will have to rely on books such as Ford's due to a total lack of education in child development at school. The increase in such books is partly down to a failure within schools to eductate people now on the practicalities of raising a child, unlike in my mother's time when it was compulsary for girls to learn how to care for a baby and give them basic skills on motherhood.
We have a 4 month-old baby boy and a copy of the Contended Baby book.
I think Gina Ford's schedule is a little extreme - segmentaing a day into her tiny time slots is unrealistic to anyone who isn't autistic. However, we have taken her advice as a general rule of thumb and we allow a half hour(ish) margin-of-error on our son's routine.
We do have a very contented baby but I think the fact he has contended parents plays no small part.
Tom Oulton, Leeds, England
I haven't read any of her stuff myself, but as far as I can see, taking childcare advice from a non-parent is like taking driving lessons from a non-driver.
Julian Nicholls, Lymington, UK
I have 2 kids and have never heard of this person nor her book.
People have raised kids for centuries without instuction books. There is no secret formula to raising kids so I advise people to stop trying to find it and just do what works for you and your family. My wife and I just get on with raising our kids and enjoy the adventure.
Lance Strangely, UK
We found the book fairly useless, and regretted spending £10 on it. It might work for a professional carer, but the routines are so rigid and inflexible as to be unrealistic for most people unless they are totally lacking in confidence, or can't manage their time effectivly, in which case you're better off talking to your health visitor. It almost sets you up to feel a failure at a time when you may be mentally vulnerable (not a problem for a professional carer). By the way, our son has slept through since he was 2 months old and is very content.
I think Ms Ford needed to grow a thicker skin, or at least think long and hard about how she would deal with the inevitable nay-saying of her ideas once she was in the public eye, before she was published. She's not dealing with it very well at all, and this is not going to do her much good at all. Personally, I find her ideas on child-rearing and baby-wrangling absolutely hilarious and totally unworkable.
Robina Lowes, Somerset, UK
My husband bought "Contentd Little Baby" when our now 6 year old son was born. Ms Ford's routines seem to suit Ms Ford's life as a nanny/nurse, and not family life. I also found her advice on breastfeeding to be contrary to all other sources on that subject, and she came accross, in her book, as very dismissive of all other baby care proffesionals and experts (I include family in that category). The book proved of very little use with either of our children, who, incedentally, are very happy, healthy and well adjusted.
Niki Lall, Fleet, Hampshire
What a shame! Gina Ford has taken the time to write a book based on HER ideas. She's not FORCING you to read it or follow her advice. Personally, as a new mum I'd dip into "Contented Baby" and found it really helpful on occasions but I didn't follow it religiously. Whilst I think it is ridiculous banning people from speaking about the book, I do think the people who made it personal to her should be ashamed of themselves. Perhaps they should channel their energy into sharing their experience if they think Ms Ford's advice is so bad.
Anne Formica, Basingstoke
When my daughter was born I started reading such a book by an "expert" and quickly discarded it as it seemed to make everything completely unachievable, with little room for the joy of having children. Although difficult at times I have learnt to trust my instincts. I now have two very happy and contented children, who have two happy and contented parents. I regret spending any of my over-stretched and precious time reading this kind of thing. Why not put the books down and pick up your baby instead and get to know them. None of us are perfect parents, but this lady is not a parent at all, and as many babies she's looked after its a completely different kettle of fish raising your own.
Kate , London
Gina's book saved us from a fate worse than death (i.e. twin boys now a year old)
Roland Scott, Chippenham, Wilts
Ms. Ford is one amongst many who has written a self-help book to get you through your particular day: whether it be managing people at work; stopping smoking; losing weight; or as in this case, bringing up baby. In all these examples, I don't know anyone who sticks to the advise as though it were the law. People who are inelligent enough will bend the rules and adapt to their needs and requirements. I'm sure most parents are bombarded with advice (from all angles), but are their mother-in-laws abused in the same way as Ms Ford is being?
Iain, Mortlake, London
My wife and I used Gina Ford when our boy was born. He was a big cryer and the advice she gave in certain areas was invaluable to us now. Our son is in a routine that has really benefited us now, particularly around eating and going to bed. That said, not every child is the same, and Gina's books should be seen as nothing more than advice, where you can take it or leave it - in the same way you would seek advice from family and friends. I am sure even Gina would admit all of her suggestions wouldn't work on every child.
I picked up Gina Ford's book when my son was 6 weeks old. My husband and I were both exhausted and were willing to try anything. We both think the Contended Baby book is a lifesaver and I'm happy to say it saved our sanity.
It seems that pretty much everyone here didn't follow her advice even if they read her book, which I think speaks volumes. Gina Ford should also realise that when you put yourself in the public eye you may well come in for some personal criticism, just ask the Beckhams or John Prescott. It is especially so when you are putting forth ideas on a very sensitive subject. Sometimes people just don't like what they see in you and suing won't make that go away.
Kevin, Bristol, UK
The fact she has no children of her own is probably why she can listen to a baby cry for an hour, complete emotional detatchment. I'd rather be a loving father (and I am).
Ricky Forester, Hampshire
The first two weeks of our son's life was really difficult, as you would expect. On day 15 my wife decided it was time to 'Gina' him, it seemed to suit him perfectly and we have a very contented baby and very contented parents with a wonderful 4 week old boy. The best few quid I have ever spent. Gina rules!
My friends brought up both of her boys using this method. I would say that they were very unhappy babies and the strict regime has significantly reduced the special, loving bond between parent and child. They have a 'business' relationship. Children should be enjoyed, not just tolerated.
Robert, Stirling, Scotland
I notice that many of the comments put forward an opinion and then justify it by saying "..and my baby sleeps through/ is healthy/ content". As a new father, I find it sad that so many parents feel they need to justify their chosen methods. Sure, people need advice, like everything in life. But all I want is for happy parents bringing up happy children. What works for me may not work for others. I'm happy to share my experiences but would never want to make someone else feel threatened/ guilty/ inadequate by doing so. Gina Ford wouldn't work for us but if it works for others, I say good on them.
As a new mother I didn't have time to read my bank statements, let alone a book!
Margaret Harris, Croydon, Surrey