Why millennial parents are turning to the super-strict regime of Gina Ford

Arabella Byrne
Arabella Byrne and her 3-month-old daughter Constance at their home in Longworth, Oxfordshire - Matt Writtle

I wanted to interview Gina Ford, one of the most divisive figures in child rearing, 25 years on from the publication of her bestseller, The Contented Little Baby Book, to ask her how she galvanised an entire demographic of parents.

Selfishly, I also wanted to ask her how to get my baby to nap for two hours at a time. But I couldn’t find her. All potential leads ran cold: Vermilion, her publishers, said that they couldn’t help, messages on X remained unanswered, the contact form on her website proved a dead end.

In searching, I became confused about who she was. Gina Ford, the bestselling author of the Contented Little Baby Book franchise; Gina Ford, the childless maternity nurse whose name slipped into common usage; Gina Ford the Howard Hughes-esque workaholic, insomniac millionaire who apocryphally divides her time between Scotland and Switzerland; Gina Ford the baby torturer; Gina Ford the patron saint of sleep; Gina Ford the unlikely feminist?

Turns out, there are many different Ginas, and most parents have a relationship with one – or many – of her alter egos. Maybe we’re all looking for her.

Gina Ford
Gina Ford, who made millions from her childcare books, advises parents to keep to a strict routine - Nicky Stonehill

It is now a quarter of a century since The Contented Little Baby Book was first published in 1999. It sold over a million copies worldwide and spawned a lucrative franchise of follow-on books on toddlers, potty training and weaning.

Between them, her books account for 25 per cent of the childcare market share, consistently made the bestseller lists upon publication, and have reputedly earned Ford millions of pounds according to the Daily Mail.

In The Contented Little Baby Book, Ford advises parents to keep to a strict routine from the moment the baby is brought home. The baby is to be woken no later than 7am and fed at strict four-hourly intervals throughout the day. Naptimes are to be observed to the second in a room so dark you will struggle to see your own infant.

If the baby cries, it is to be left until it can settle itself (revised in subsequent editions to 15 minutes of crying at a time). Eye contact at bedtime is strictly forbidden. Mothers must wash bottles and eat meals at set times before having “a good rest”.

Very soon, she promises, your contented little baby will sleep for 12 hours at night and for 2.5 hours in the middle of the day with no crying or resistance whatsoever. Very soon, she promises, you – and I think she can only mean the mother – will be contented too.

If I sound jaded, I don’t mean to. I am a Gina acolyte; I believe in Gina. But it’s complicated. Two months before my first daughter was born six years ago, my sister passed her “Gina bible” on to me. I scanned its dog-eared pages with reverence and, later, fear.

In the margins, random times – 0324, 0517, 0231 – were scrawled with question marks dangling off them. In the troubleshooting pages at the back, several passages had been underlined with what looked like force.

The section in her book on the Lunchtime Nap bore the signs of coffee stains and the scent of despair. Very soon, my own imprint was written into the text: pages bent down, times scribbled illegibly, baby rice glued to the spine: a palimpsest of modern motherhood.

With persistence – and belief – her routine worked. More or less. The fact that my eldest daughter point blank refused to nap was, to be frank, an issue I was sure even Gina couldn’t fix.

But with consistency and a room as dark as the Black Hole of Calcutta, she slept for two hours in the middle of the day every day until she was three, a period of time in the day without which I would have gone mad, particularly during the pandemic.

When I had my second daughter, Constance, six months ago, I dug the book out again. Cortisol ran like an electric current through my veins upon opening it. My second daughter is more resistant to Gina’s method; we’re not there yet. New traces have been made upon different troubleshooting sections.

Upon hearing my method, some friends have greeted me with the enthusiasm and camaraderie of army veterans: “Just shut the door!” they trill. Others have been more disapproving, incredulous even: “I don’t think you can just leave her to get on with it,” one said rather darkly over coffee while the baby was upstairs. Am I, at 40 years old, a parenting anachronism?

My conflicted relationship with Gina is not uncommon amongst women, although very often it is voiced as a polarised binary: you love her, or you hate her. For some, she is a saviour. One friend, a full-time mother of three, speaks of how Gina rescued her from the pit of depression when she was so tired she thought bats were circling her curtains and had lost three stone from sleep deprivation.

“Having a manual to work from was what saved me,” she says simply, although she does note that she “bought the book in secret”.

For others, the Gina doctrine is pernicious. “I didn’t want to take that risk with my two girls,” another writer friend says, before adding that “future research into sleep will reveal the damage her methods have wrought”. When I added that without routine, I didn’t think I could be a very good mother, she softened.

In the virtual town squares of UK motherhood – Mumsnet and Netmums – the debate is equally strident. So strident in fact that Ford sued Mumsnet in 2007 for defamatory statements posted about her, the most lurid of which was probably the claim that Ford “straps babies to rockets and fires them into south Lebanon”.

The case was settled out of court. Study these debates closely and it soon becomes clear that they are about far more than parenting methods.

Mentions of Gina on Netmums are civil and matter of fact: “My little one was a Gina baby to the letter!” one mother says enthusiastically, while another notes: “I started to use the Gina routine when my other half started a new job so I knew I’d be on my todd [sic].” Mumsnet is a different matter.

“The best thing you can do with her book is burn it before you drive yourself to despair and depression,” one woman posts, before adding: “We’re not allowed to discuss her without being sued.” Often, the Gina debate on Mumsnet cuts across into the cultural wars on breastfeeding versus formula, an argument that goes straight to the dark heart of whether mothers choose necessity over biology.

“I really thought it would be like Gina said,” one mother posts, “but it really isn’t, you have to feed and feed and feed [...]  I was sobbing, really sobbing when I realised how misleading she was.”

Critic and self-styled “reactionary feminist” Mary Harrington has observed in an article on Unherd that “a suspicion begins to emerge that notionally scientific parenting questions are in truth vehicles for class and culture debates”.

Mumsnet, Harrington contends in her article, skews to middle to upper-middle class while Netmums skews more towards lower-middle or working class. Perhaps the logic of paid work lies behind this assertion: if you need to go back to work quickly because your statutory maternity pay is low, then you need your baby to be in a routine to do so.

If, let’s suppose, your need to return to work is less urgent, your need for your baby to be in a routine – and therefore for you to be able to sleep – is not so imperative. If this is the case, then you may choose gentler, attachment-style methods of parenting advocated by parenting gurus William and Martha Sears; methods that involve “baby-wearing”, sharing a bed with your baby, and round-the-clock breastfeeding until age two or beyond.

In their bestselling 2001 The Attachment Parenting Book, the Sears posit that a loving parental bond is beneficial to the child. Modernity has stripped us of this natural, atavistic instinct and it’s time to bring it back, they argue, adding that the “mother feels complete only when she is with her baby”.

Critics of attachment parenting counter that this approach is unscientific, ignores the needs of the mother and creates overindulged children. Andrew G Marshall, author of I Love You But You Always Put Me Last (2013), argues that attachment parenting has a detrimental effect on the family structure, a fact that can only harm the child in the long-term: “The mother is telling the children that they’re more important than their father.”

This is a blunt argument. But it does speak to the ways in which infant sleep and capitalism are poor bedfellows. Try working on four hours of broken sleep and it soon becomes clear that baby sleep is a political problem underwritten by all sorts of policy problems: low maternity pay, unaffordable childcare, poor paternity leave uptake.

Or, as the academic Sharon Hays, author of The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, has it: “The wall between home and world has always been structurally unstable and insufficiently high.”

These days, infant sleep is a capitalist’s dream nestled in the digital and AI realm. Forget earmarking pages of a tatty book, new mothers today simply download an app and track their baby’s awake windows, nap times, nappy “events” and feeding patterns.

Writer Arabella Bryne suggests that the problem of baby sleep is at its root a political one
Writer Arabella Bryne suggests that the problem of baby sleep is at its root a political one - Matt Writtle

Apps such as Huckleberry and Pampers’ Smart Sleep Coach promise to have your baby sleeping through the night and napping reliably in no time. Others, like the Nanny Louenna app, offer a Norland Nanny “in your pocket”. All you need to do is pay for a subscription, sit back and allow your baby to hand over a stream of data that will be used in your Instagram adverts until the end of time.

Sleep trainer Hattie Frank, founder of the consultancy Not Another Peep, says that the landscape of parenting advice has changed dramatically in the past 25 years: “Since Gina’s heyday in the late 90s there has been a huge shift in how people source their parenting advice. Far fewer people read books anymore. During Covid, demand for baby tech spiked as parents were alone with their children all day long. But these apps often don’t deliver; I was inundated with clients.”

I can’t help but wonder what Gina would make of all this. Would she be suspicious of the baby tech boom (worth $46 billion in the US according to Forbes) that uses impersonal algorithms and AI to nurture babies? I think so.

But how different is her own “one size fits all” routine? I suspect that Gina might say it’s all about the mother, not the baby. In her 2006 memoir Good Mother, Bad Mother, Ford describes her routines as an act of restitution to mothers, who, she says, are “desperate for answers” and “just want to be told what to do”.

That was 18 years ago. Has no childcare expert appeared on the scene since who can, finally, tell us what to do?

In the splintered digital landscape of 21st-century parenting, it seems that lots of people want to tell us what to do, but none with the absolutism and implacably straight lines of Gina. Straight lines that lead back to us, as mothers.

I write this at 4am in the kitchen, when my baby is meant to be asleep. Over the monitor placed next to my laptop, I hear that she has woken. I want to ask Gina what to do; should I go to her or carry on writing? I think I know the answer. But I’m still looking for Gina, trying – without success – to find her.