Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Nanny to the nation
Denise Winterman

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?

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".

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
Mother Claire Winsome

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.

'Natural instinct'

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 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.
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."

First published on BBC News, 9 August 2006