Changing baby care fads are confusing, says celebrity supernanny Rachel Waddilove, who advocates 'old-fashioned common sense'. But her own approach can be controversial...
Rachel Waddilove knows a thing or two about bringing up baby. The grandmother, maternity nurse and all-round parenting expert has spent 40 years assisting end-of-their-tether mothers and fathers – among them Gwyneth Paltrow and Lord and Lady Mountbatten – on matters ranging from breastfeeding ("great if you can do it") to baby-led weaning ("absolutely not"), and stands somewhere on the parenting spectrum between Gina Ford and Mary Poppins.
With a new book just hitting the shelves, the original supernanny is calling for a "return to foundation parenting" – starting with a sensible, guilt-free approach to getting much-needed shuteye for the whole family.
Sleep Solutions: Quiet Nights for You and Your Child, from Birth to Five Years is touted as an "accessible, practical and realistic" guide for the under-rested. It promises salvation for those who can't afford £280 per 24 hours, or up to £40 per half an hour by phone, for Waddilove's personal-consultation and maternity-nurse services. How to get one's little cherub to sleep is the question she comes up against time and time again in her work, she says. "It is the most important thing for a family. Sleep deprivation really can drive a wedge between partners."
The best part is, it needn't be that way.
"Any well child can sleep through the night from a young age," she says. "A lot of it is very basic stuff, like making sure a baby isn't going to sleep on an empty stomach or sleeping in a light room." There is also nothing wrong, she says, with leaving a child to settle themselves so long as they are safe and not in pain. After a week of the routine Waddilove advocates in her book, she says infants should be sleeping like babies. For those who will recoil in horror at the suggestion of "controlled crying", which has fallen out of fashion since the heyday of disciplinary parenting's grande dame, Gina Ford, there is new supporting evidence.
Earlier this month, findings of a study at Philadelphia University showed that waking at various points in the night is part of the natural developmental course. It found that by the age of six months, most babies woke once or twice in the night, with just six per cent of children waking every night by the age of three. The inference was that leaving a "signalling" (crying) baby to "self-soothe" or "cry it out" might be the most sensible response.
"It's what we always did," says Waddilove, who trained at Barnardo's in the 1960s, and still applies many of the same techniques now that she learnt back then. "Raising a child requires a lot of love and a strong will, but a lot of parents seem to have lost sight of the basics."
Much of the official advice doled out to new parents these days, she adds, is "nonsense". Among her pet peeves are the World Health Organisation's guidelines not to wean a child before six to eight months, and the widespread advocacy of baby-led weaning – letting a baby pick their own food from a plate, rather than spoon-feeding them purée. "It's nonsense – babies need to develop in a certain way. These ideas came from scientists who do experiments but know nothing about babies. They'll revert back to past guidelines soon enough, I'm sure of it."
Don't even get her started on attachment parenting, which in its most basic form is when a child sleeps in their parents' bed and is strapped to their mother in a sling. "It's not fair on the child. The idea is that a child chooses when to 'detach' from its parents, but if it's always been attached, the child doesn't know anything different and the detachment process can be very traumatic," she says.
Waddilove's is a reassuring voice of calm and reason, which occasionally slides – by her own admission – into the gratingly unprogressive. She was a natural choice for Iain Duncan Smith, who personally called on the grandmother of three to advise him when he was setting up the Centre for Social Justice think tank nine years ago.
Dressed for our interview in a cardigan and pearls, Waddilove, 65, is once again speaking up for "old- fashioned, common-sense parenting". "Parents have got in a real muddle as to how they should be parenting their children," she concedes. Not least because of the amount of conflicting advice on offer.
The baby industry is booming in Britain. Waddilove's latest title – her third book, following on from her much-loved baby and toddler books – is just the latest in a slew of how-to parenting guides. From Amy Chua's ferocious bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to last year's international hit French Children Don't Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman, the baby-book industry is big business.
Walk into any bookshop and head to the parenting shelves (which go on forever) and anxious mothers and fathers might easily find themselves more confused than when they started out, because of the scale and breadth of what is on offer. It seems the last thing befuddled parents need is more choice, but now more than ever Waddilove believes her common-sense advice is needed: "Today, being a parent is filled with pressure. Babies and children have become a lot more precious. I'm a real believer in lots of love and care and cherishing and nurturing your children… but I see children being made kingpin. Then you find by the time they are five they are abominable."
An increase of older parents, she adds, who have money and want to give the best to their children, can also encounter particular difficulties: "Rather than children being taken to everything there is to be taken to, rather than just letting them use their imagination, let's have a few toys or even some pots and pans and let them sit on the kitchen floor. It's so important for children to be able to build their imagination and be given a bit of freedom."
An increase in working mothers, too, is blamed for creating anxiety in families – not least because, in her unapologetically dated view, most women ultimately yearn to be stay-at-home mums. "I'm a bit old-fashioned. I think there shouldn't be the pressure on women to go back to work… There are many, many women who would love to be at home more and really be home makers because that's what we're made for… Women, basically, we're carers; men are providers."
Because they can't be with their children, so the theory goes, there is a greater sense of guilt among mothers, who then over-compensate: "Parents find it difficult imposing discipline. People have lost where and what the boundaries are – 'Is this behaviour acceptable or not?' And if it's not acceptable, deal with it."
What Britain needs, Waddilove concludes, is a "return to foundation parenting". It is, she says, a matter of getting things into perspective: "I have people ringing me up saying, 'I don't know what to do – I've tried everything, nothing's working.'" Her answer? "'Go back to the good old-fashioned values of putting boundaries in,' I tell them, and they all say, 'That's what my mother said.' I say, 'Well, actually, listen to your mother – she's right!'"