In Defence of Gina Ford
By Jodi Bartle
Ever since I’ve been having babies, the battle of the sleep experts has raged on - one of the many, many divisive debates that don't serve much purpose other than to confuse parents and make mothers feel a bit guilty and wrong-footed about yet another area of their parenting lives.
Whether it’s working mothers vs stay at home, bottle or breast, tutor or just winging it, sometimes it’s interesting to wade back in and have a little poke around and see where it all went wrong - or went ok, actually, all things considered.
So, sleep. In the interests of full disclosure - I am a Gina Ford total raving convert. The Contented Little Baby Book has accompanied me through the not-always-easy task of keeping alive my five little London babies, and keeping my husband and I on speaking terms. I sleep, he sleeps, we all sleep, no one seems to be awfully emotionally ruined, bedtimes are painless and quick, we have no nighttime visitors, and our bed has always been solely ours. And Gina Ford’s routine, which is segmented into reassuring week by week, hour by hour instruction, taught us all how.
My openness to Fordian thinking began a long time ago, when I was a student in New Zealand and my part time job was being a mother’s help in a posh part of town. I worked for a few families and as each family did things a little differently, I got to see what worked well, and what didn't work well, in a real, tender, dirty-dishes-and-shouty-parents-and-wet-beds kind of proximity. I remember one night of evening babysitting for two little boys.
I needed to put them to bed quickly so I could tackle a thick wad of study notes but it wasn’t an easy task because the oldest boy would only go to sleep if someone lay down with him on his bed, stroking his hair, with a lamp on and the door left open, and the baby needed perpetual motion to nod off.
So I found myself that night squashed into a little bedroom, on a narrow little boys’ bed, with the buggy shoved into the doorway, my arm stretched out just enough to grasp the handle and rock the buggy back and forth. My arm hurt, the light hurt, my neck hurt. It seemed like madness. The kids were not enabled to fall asleep on their own and I vowed I would do things better.
So, fast forward. I'm in London, I have my first baby, I am tired, and know I will keep being tired. I have no help and my mother is half a world away. I think of those boys I looked after who needed such a lot of help to sleep and I know I don’t want that. I get a little panicky, I read lots of books, talk to people, and confidently arm myself with a copy of Ford’s book.
My first baby is a big one, a good feeder, and I follow her timetable from the first day. I was determined to do it right, and I remember feeling so frustrated when Barnaby didn't quite fit in to her daily plan. But each morning (and middle of the night) that blueprint routine gave me something to hold on to - a plan, a road map, when I felt terribly out of depth.
I practically stapled that book to my leaking boobs and each day went back to her routines and tried again.
One of the many criticisms of Ford’s routines is that you really do have to stick to them, regardless of, well, life. So impromptu lunches were out, as are late nights with a baby sleeping in a car seat under a restaurant table. Timings of sleep and feedings are strict, and even too much eye contact between you and your baby at sleep time is discouraged.
While this can seem overwhelmingly mean and Victorian, it is really about knowing when to leave a baby - a raw, new thing, fragile and often sensorily overloaded - some quiet, restful, respectful space.
The other anti-Ford battlecry is the way she suggests leaving your baby for a bit to cry it out when you put them down to sleep. But I always reasoned it like this: babies come into the world kind of jetlagged - and as with jetlag, once you get into the rhythm of a new place you are in, your body clock adjusts and you learn to sleep at the right time.
So babies, ejected out of the womb and into the startlingly bright, shocking new world need a bit of gentle coaxing to figure out what is night and what is day, what is dark and light, quiet and noisy. Very quickly, by doing things every day the same way and at the same time, babies learn to fall asleep without needing anything from you - not rocking, or carrying, or singing, or white noise, or the motion of a car ride.
Distressed crying doesn't happen much - and if it does, you go and deal with it. Because parents who encourage good sleep habits generally aren't monsters.
And nor is she. But, as the critics cry, having had no babies of her own, how can she really know what it is like to have a baby cry it out? How can anyone but a mother really know? Well, I think that The Contented Little Baby Book is really like a best practice manual, written by someone who has done the job of caring for many, many babies - and she is telling you what generally works.
As for me, after I nailed that sleeping-through-the-night thing at six months (a little later than she said it would happen, but hey ho) I was pregnant again, and then again, and then again and then again. Five boys in the space of eight years, with different personalities, needs, bodies, temperaments, all squeezed into one basement room, one after the other as the bunks got extra levels built and the toys spread around.
For each new baby I dug out that Fordian roadmap and by the fifth kid I pretty much knew it off by heart - when to give them naps, when to gently coax them to waking, when to lower the blackout blinds, when to leave them, when to go to them and when to know that today, it wasn't going to go according to plan.
When people ask me how I have had five boys and not be crippled by the sheer exhaustion of it all, I say I’m not tired, because they sleep - and because they sleep, we sleep. They always have.
Are you a fan of the Gina Ford Contented Baby books? Let us know how you got on with sleep training - or lack thereof - in the comments.