Babies might not come with a manual, but they DO come with a heck of a lot of books and websites written by experts with totally conflicting views. To simplify it all for you, we asked a group of mums who've already been through those bamboozling first six months about the best-known parenting experts out there and why they rate them...
For us, and for many of the mums we talk to, the sheer variety of parenting advice out there can be overwhelming. It's all so imbued with opinion and, more often than not, different experts completely contradict each other: 'Don't sleep in the same bed as your child' versus 'co-sleep if you want a secure attachment'; 'Carrying your baby all the time will spoil him,' versus 'babies need you to carry them as much as possible'; 'Controlled crying doesn't hurt anyone' versus 'Never let your baby cry'. What's a new mum to do! We spoke to five Baby&Child mums about their experiences and it became clear that there are four major parenting schools of thought being used by most mums, and that we all tend to take elements from each. Most of all, it became clear that there's no 'right' or 'wrong' way to parent, however much books or friends or family might make you feel that there is...
Midwife Gina Ford's 1999 The Contented Little Baby Book is still a hugely influential bestseller and advocates a very precise daily routine for both baby and parents. Lots of mums swear by it.
Rania: I have The Contented Little Baby Book, which gives a lot of details about what to do in terms of routines and feeding schedules from birth. Her 'crying down' sleep method [which says that some babies fight sleep and therefore can occasionally be left to cry for five to 10 minutes until they settle themselves] seems to be controversial, however, I have been following the schedules extremely successfully with my daughter. They helped us diagnose some feeding issues that otherwise could have resulted in Maya being hospitalised for dehydration. The effectiveness of the schedules also meant we never needed to sleep-train, as the routines fitted so well with her natural rhythms that she has always been quite happy to go to sleep. The book is also aligned to my studies as a hypnotherapy instructor on how the brain develops. Consistency and routine are very important and the schedules minimise unnecessary stress for babies, who already have enough to deal with in terms of growing and adjusting to their new environment. I haven't found that anyone has been too judgemental - if anything, other mums have been happy to say they use Gina Ford too.
Lucy: The Gina Ford book helped me with shaping a routine, and suited my busy lifestyle. Barney learnt to self-settle very early on and I've never struggled to put him down for a nap or bedtime ever. However, I was living in the UK when Barney was very little and at the time Gina Ford's book was like a guilty secret - I was told midwives scorned it and hid the book from them!
Rebecca: I know that Gina Ford's style of parenting is deemed pretty controversial and 'old school' by many. I also know that some parents have a great deal of success with it. However, it's not a route that my husband and I chose to follow with our parenting as we couldn't get our head around leaving our child to cry or setting up a very strict routine from day one. I felt strongly that it was our role and responsibility as parents to respond both gently and with kindness to Maddie's needs. I don't think that it is my role as a parent to 'train' my child, but rather to nurture them. I also found Gina Ford's view that colic can be prevented by 'proper' parenting very distressing - and I now feel very strongly that assertions like this can have a really damaging impact on women as they come to terms with their new role as a mum.
Joyce: Gina Ford is all about routine and listening to your baby's cues - a lot of it becomes common sense, but as a new mum you are so confused and sometimes forget the simplest of things. At first I couldn't accept that routine would be such a big part of my babies' lives. However, after understanding the concept of the sleep/eat/play rhythm, and the importance of putting babies to bed at the same time every day, I realised how helpful it is for the baby and the family. I implemented a routine for both kids after they were four months old. Although it has worked for me, a lot of people can be judgemental when I am being strict about routine, especially at important family events when I insist the kids go to bed on time and everyone else wants us to stay up so they can play with the baby.
Clementina: I haven't read any Gina Ford and never thought about implementing a particular style of parenting. I just go with what feels right and I know that under no circumstances would I ever let my kids fall asleep crying. I would never want to impose my opinions on somebody else, but that's how I feel for my own children.
First coined by the American paediatrician William Sears in 1985, attachment parenting is a philosophy that emphasises the connection between mother and baby, both through maximal maternal empathy and literally through continually close physical contact. Co-sleeping, baby-wearing, no sleep training and feeding-on-demand in the early days are key elements. It's a movement that has become increasingly popular (some might say 'trendy') in recent years.
Rebecca: I think a lot of people think that attachment parenting is quite hippyish and you'd have to be a bit of an 'earth mama' to follow the principles, however, they've very much worked for us - although it wasn't something we ever set out to follow. Sometimes I wonder if my parenting decisions have been mainly fuelled by an ounce of laziness, but we really do find it easier to settle Maddie when she's in her sling for instance, so I baby-wear all the time. I also practised natal hypnotherapy in the run-up to my labour, which I found extremely useful. She still feeds on demand and we've continued this approach with baby-led weaning. If she's having an unsettled night, we will co-sleep safely, and although she follows a natural routine during the day I keep her schedules semi-flexible and follow her lead. I do think people judge me occasionally, especially my friends who aren't parents. I was asked recently by a friend why I'm still letting her breastfeed every two to three hours, and I think I might be judged for letting her nap in her sling. I think co-sleeping is becoming more accepted within the parenting world with the popularity of co-sleeping cots and the wide publicity of safe co-sleeping guidelines, which is great.
Joyce: I looked at research done in less-developed countries, where babies are attached to their mothers through babywearing and long-term breastfeeding, and it shows that these babies tend to cry a lot less and have a stronger bond with their mothers, which makes sense to me. My research led me to want to co-sleep with my second child, which I hadn't done with our first. I also chose to breastfeed on demand and not on routine for the first few months, which I believe helped to create more of a bond between us and less stress for me. I also carry my babies a lot. I definitely have felt a bit judged for co-sleeping and frequently carrying them, but I have always believed that babies need their mothers and showing them comfort by holding them or sleeping next to them does not create bad habits but helps them to feel secure and loved. However, by approximately four months with both children I began to adopt more of a clear routine, motived by the need for me to start being myself again, and to having more time for my husband and the rest of the family.
Lucy: Attachment parenting wasn't for me at all. I shower my child with love, but I was scared to co-sleep in case of some horrendous roll-over incident, I loved my Bugaboo stroller so much and spent most of my time out and about, as well as recovering from a C-section, so babywearing was never for me (I tried a sling once - he hated it). I didn't have time for baby-led weaning; I was working in the UK and had no nanny or anything, I needed to feed him and get on to the next thing. It's very 'vogue' right now, but seven years ago when I had Barney it wasn't the done thing and co-sleeping, etc was massively frowned upon. I'm 22 weeks pregnant now and I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the next one - we will have to see!
Rania: My impression is that attachment parenting is totally baby-led with parents available on demand. I disregarded it as I felt it is not a practical consideration for us as both of us work.
Clementina: Again, I had no sense of whether I was doing a particular 'style', I just did what seemed right to me. This meant that we did no sleep-training at all, and both of our daughters often sleep in the same bed as us, so we do co-sleep in an Attachment Parenting way. On the other hand, I have back problems so babywearing was never an option, and in terms of breastfeeding, I might be considered selfish, but I didn't make a fuss about it and we also had to take my needs and my schedule into consideration. With the first one, I had to introduce formula when she was four months old as she was not happy with my milk only. The youngest one refused my milk when she was four months old and wanted only formula from the bottle. My only regret is that I could have used a pump, but I don't know why I didn't give more thought to it.
The Baby Whisperer
The enticing-sounding Secrets of the Baby Whisperer was first published in 2001 and was written by British neonatal nurse and mum-of-two Tracey Hogg, who became well known for her work with high-profile parents in Hollywood. Her easy-to-read book postulates the EASY routine ('eat', 'activity', 'sleep', 'you'), which aims to provide a practical middle ground between rigid scheduling and being totally on demand.
Lucy: I read this book and a lot of it was about identifying your baby's behaviour type, and adapting your parenting style accordingly. Also about being calm and so on. I didn't actually use it myself as Barney was such an easy baby that I didn't need it - I was very lucky! My impression is that it's very popular though, and not at all controversial
Rebecca: I read the Baby Whisperer when Maddie was about three or four weeks old after a friend recommended it to me. While some of the methods were useful and helped me to identify Maddie's needs and it's a lot less rigid than Gina Ford's methods, there were some areas that I found hugely outdated after I researched them more thoroughly - for example, Tracey Hogg's suggestion that as a breastfeeding mother you can establish how much milk you produce by pumping and then looking at your yield. According to my research breastfeeding experts now say that babies are far more adept at getting milk than a pump is and it's therefore a poor way to establish levels of milk production. I have, however, taken elements from this style of parenting - especially the Eat Activity Sleep You (EASY) routine. Maddie follows this on most occasions very naturally, especially before she was going longer between naps. These days her routine tends to go more Eat- Activity-Eat-Activity-Sleep-You/Me. In the early days it helped me to determine if she was tired or hungry. However, I did try to follow the more detailed routine outlined in the book and really, really struggled before I came to the conclusion that I should just put the book down and listen more closely to what my child wanted, rather than be watching the clock the whole time. It's a more flexible sort of schedule though and I've never felt judged for using this style of parenting.
Although it has a lot in common with Attachment Parenting (AP), whereas AP follows specific principles, Gentle Parenting (GP) is "just a way of being that has no bearing on making specific choices to be in line with a certain style," according to Sarah Ockwell-Smith, the author of the 2016 The Gentle Parenting Book. She has also written the books BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm and is one of three founders of the website gentleparenting.co.uk, which emphasises a compassionate, evidence-based approach that doesn't mind how you feed your baby, whether you co-sleep or not, etc. She says that GP can be summed up in three words: understanding, empathy and respect.
Rebecca: Being a 'gentle parent' isn't something I've ever set out to be - it's more something that's come naturally. I've never read extensively around the subject, but after learning more about the gentle parenting style I can completely identify with its core: building a respectful relationship with my child. I have always tried to respond to Maddie's needs and treat her as a small human with feelings, rather than as something that needs to be 'trained'. Although she's currently too young for us to deal with the issues that surround children's behaviour, rewards and punishments, I like to think that as and when the time comes, I will treat her in a way that I would like to be treated: with empathy and respect, allowing her to form her own opinions and make her own choices.
Rania: I use the GP website and tend to agree with the concepts of respecting and considering the child's mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, although I have yet to be challenged by toddler tantrums or teenage hormones. I also agree with the idea that babies pick up on their caregivers' energy - in particular, stress - and with the concept of using positive language [for example, saying 'gentle hands' rather than 'don't hit'].
Joyce: As my first son has started growing into a toddler and showing us his character, I've found GP to be useful in terms of discipline. I realised I had to forget how I was bought up and adapt to his personality, which is very sensitive. When he does something wrong, my automatic reaction would be to get angry, but I've learnt that explaining to him what he has done is wrong, while still showing him love, he is more cooperative and understanding. Sometimes my husband thinks I am being too gentle or lenient with the kids when I am not punishing them for doing something wrong by, for example, giving them a time-out or ignoring them until they apologise, but I feel this wouldn't fulfil their needs or help the situation.
Lucy: I agree with the GP concept of listening to the children, encouraging and motivating them to make their own choices. The only thing I disagree with is the "no praise" element of GP; in reality in life they will be given praise either at nursery, school, playdates or after-school activities... I naturally love to give positive feedback so I don't buy into the no-praise element; children really like to feel accomplishment and be encouraged in my opinion and experience.
Meet our mums:
Clementina Kongslund - 39, Romanian, mum to Valentina, six, and Benedicte, aged three
Joyce Kane - 30, Australian, mum to three-year-old Zachariah and seven-month-old Zephaniah
Rania Laing - 41, British, mum to nine-month-old Maya
Rebecca Munns - 29, British, mum to six-month-old Madeleine
Lucy Clare Holmes - 36, British, mum to six-year-old Barney and 22 weeks pregnant
Photos by Aiza Castillo-Domingo/Shutterstock