Mother of all Debates: Controlled crying, fussy eating and temper tantrums
Parenting expert Gina Ford has as many followers as she has detractors. Here the nanny to a nation tells Katie Byrne why hundreds of thousands of parents have subscribed to her rigid, routine-based philosophy
Most parents have an opinion on Gina Ford. To some she's a lifesaver - or a "Godsend" as actress Kate Winslet describes her.
To others she's an uncompromising authoritarian - former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg compared her rules to "sticking the infant in a broom cupboard".
Ford, a former maternity nurse, came to prominence when her first book, The Contented Little Baby, was published in 1999. It has since sold over half a million copies, making her one of the bestselling childcare authors in the UK - as well as the most divisive.
For the uninitiated, The Contented Little Baby is about establishing structure as early as possible so that the baby integrates with the routine of the family.
Put simply, it means mums and dads have a better chance of getting uninterrupted sleep - and getting through the first couple of years of parenting with their sanity intact.
Ford describes her approach as "common sense". It's a system in which the adult, rather than the infant, dictates the schedule.
Critics, meanwhile, dismiss her techniques as cold and dictatorial.
Ford has imparted plenty of practical advice over the years but she will always be associated with her beliefs that a sleeping baby should be woken for feeding and eye contact should be avoided during certain night-time feeds so that the child understands it isn't playtime.
Equally, she will always be known as the parenting expert who recommends 'controlled crying' - a technique in which a child is left to 'cry it out' in certain scenarios.
She is quick to correct me when I suggest that this particular piece of advice goes against every maternal instinct.
"Anyone who has read my books properly and follows the advice I give, knows that the only time I advise a baby to be left to cry is if they become overtired, and even then we are talking about a matter of minutes," she asserts.
As for maternal instinct, she counters that her technique helps parents hone this faculty, and not the other way around.
"One of the main reasons that parents choose to follow the CLB routines is that it helps them to understand all of their baby's needs," she says. "And by meeting their baby's needs, they rarely have to deal with a crying baby."
Ford enthusiasts are as typecast as the author herself. They are often portrayed as overly strict, or worse, selfish. Gina says this couldn't be further from the truth.
"The type of parents who follow the CLB routines are ones that want to ensure that all their baby's needs are being met and that they do not end up with a baby crying for hours in the evening or in the night...
"They also tend to come from very close-knit families," she continues, "and the parents themselves were often brought up in a routine."
Routine is a word that Gina uses often. She was brought up by a single mother in a household with very little structure or boundaries. She slept in her mother's bed until the age of 11 and believes she now suffers from insomnia as a result.
"I have found that many people I meet that suffer from anxiety, stress and sleep-related issues were very often brought up in a home that was lacking in structure and boundaries when they were children," she explains.
"To me, it makes sense that children that grow up in a calm home, with healthy balanced meals and the right amount of sleep, who learn how to be confident and deal with the pressure of life, are more likely to cope with the pressures of the world when they are adults, than those who have not had the balance and consistency."
Consistency is another Gina Ford watchword. Consistency, she says, is the key to success, irrespective of what parenting style a parent chooses.
"If the parents are happy with their choice of parenting style and consistent with their approach so their baby's needs are being met, then a baby should never be discontented whatever style of parenting is being followed."
Problems arise, she adds, when parents subscribe to conflicting advice. "They often try several different tactics within a short space of time to resolve a problem. This lack of consistency can often lead to the child's behaviour becoming worse instead of better."
Gina doesn't have any children of her own. Her critics argue that this circumstance makes her less qualified to dispense advice on parenting. Gina, meanwhile, believes that this renders her something of an advantage.
"Because I have not had children, I have been able to devote more time than most to my working life," she says.
"I have been fortunate to have worked with thousands of parents and their children and this has enabled me to learn so much about the feeding and sleeping needs of young babies and children."
This is followed by an after-thought. "Also, as someone pointed out to me many years ago, a heart specialist does not need to have had a heart attack in order to perform a successful heart operation."
These days, Gina runs a popular website and a one-to-one telephone consultation service. She says she has noticed an ever-growing concern with very young children being addicted to iPads and iPhones - "often refusing to eat their meal unless playing with one or the other".
"I think that other than on occasions such as a long journey, when a child could be allowed to watch a cartoon, parents should avoid using them," she adds.
She takes an equally hard line on parents who overindulge their children with the latest toys and gadgets, many of which don't even get played with.
"I think that before buying new toys, parents should do research on the internet, reading the reviews that are available to see if the particular toy is actually of help to the child's development."
Still, it's not always parents who spoil children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles can be unnecessarily extravagant too. How, I ask, can parents negotiate this predicament? "With generous relations, it is worth having a frank and honest discussion in the very early days about present-giving, so that their generosity is being put to the best use," she advises.
Certain aspects of Gina's philosophy may be considered extreme, but it's important to note that she is not a proselytiser, nor is she provocative for the sake of it.
She is loath to recommend one parenting style over another, just as she trusts that the parent ultimately knows best. And while she is sometimes portrayed as tyrannical in the media, in conversation she is balanced and reasonable.
The truth is that many of us have formed an opinion on Gina Ford after reading the sensationalised headlines rather than the whole story.
Granted, her advice may not appeal to every parent, but we can't overlook the hundreds of thousands of parents who have every faith in it.
Gina's top tips for parenting a toddler
How should parents deal with a toddler who won't go to sleep?
The first thing I advise parents to look at is the toddler's daytime routine and to ensure that they are not getting too much daytime sleep. In my experience, that is the most common reason for a toddler not settling in the evening, along with the lack of a regular bedtime. Occasionally, overtiredness can also be the cause of a toddler not settling well in the evening. It is important to stick to a regular bedtime of somewhere between 7pm and 8pm, depending on when the toddler wakes in the morning. Once a regular bedtime is established and the toddler is still not settling quickly to sleep, then the daytime sleep should be gradually cut back by five to 10 minutes every two or three days until they are settling well in the evening.
How should parents deal with a fussy eater?
It is important to ensure that meals are served at the same times every day and that the toddler is not filling up on too many snacks in between meals and drinking too much fluid within an hour or so of meal time. If a toddler becomes fussy with the food they are given, they should not be cajoled or spoon fed, or offered substitutes. Instead, the food should be taken away without any fuss or comment and they should not be offered or allowed anything else until their next meal. I deal with a huge number of fussy eaters every year and dealing with the problem the way I have described very quickly resolves any issues of fussiness with food.
How should parents deal with a toddler who won't potty train?
The majority of toddlers will potty train fairly quickly once they are both physically, mentally and emotionally ready. The key is not to try until they are showing not only signs of being aware that they are doing a pee, but also when they are happy to take instruction. It is pointless to try to potty train a toddler who will not sit still for more than five minutes or is not capable of managing to take off at least some of their own clothes, or willingly tidy away their toys when requested.
How should parents deal with a toddler who tries to get into their bed during the middle of the night after having a nightmare?
Obviously if a child has a nightmare they will need reassurance and to be comforted. But this should be done in their own room, even if it means that the parent has to stay in the room until the toddler returns to sleep. If nightmares become a regular occurrence, then parents should look for reasons why their child is having them so frequently, and possible causes for their toddler becoming anxious and frightened.
How should parents deal with a temper tantrum?
Temper tantrums often happen when the toddler becomes frustrated, bored or overtired. Toddlers tend to be full-on the whole day, so it is important to try and implement a good routine which includes quiet time at regular intervals. With younger toddlers, distraction is usually the best method of dealing with a tantrum, but as they get older they must realise that there is a consequence to their bad behaviour. The reason that so many toddler tantrums get out of hand is that parents do not carry through with their warnings. I would give a toddler only two warnings and if they have not calmed down then I would carry through with whatever discipline methods I had chosen, whether it be taking them to their room for a short period of time-out or not allowing them to watch their favourite cartoon that evening. Once they realise that there is a consequence to their bad behaviour, the tantrums will soon disappear.
** Gina Ford's latest book, 'Your Baby and Toddler Problems Solved', is in bookshops now, priced at €20.99