Before our eldest child Scarlett was born in 2003, we knew next to nothing about looking after babies. So we tried to find a manual, a contemporary equivalent of the book I knew my mother had sworn by in the 1970s, Dr Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care. My wife was intending to go back to work full-time, so a priority for her was having Scarlett in a routine - and sleeping through the night - within four months. Obviously, it wasn't going to be easy. But was it even possible?
We first heard of the controversial childcare guru Gina Ford via friends who had employed her as a maternity nurse some years before. They couldn't praise her enough. In fact, it was they who encouraged the Scottish farmer's daughter to write a manual based on her regimented method for raising infants, even lending her the laptop on which she wrote the initial drafts of what became The Contented Little Baby Book.
First published in 1999, this tome is revered and reviled in equal measure - along with its author, who sued the parenting website Mumsnet in 2007 for publishing defamatory remarks on its forums. Nick Clegg, the British deputy prime minister, reignited the debate this time last year when he called her approach "absolute nonsense". Ford responded that Clegg had "insulted the parenting choice of more than two million British voters".
Ford spent 12 years looking after some 300 babies as a maternity nurse and nanny, but has no children of her own. This is one reason she is so easy to disparage. Another is that her success has highlighted, almost by accident, a massive ideological gulf. On one side: the "routiners", often working mothers who don't want to be up all night and expressing milk in the office; on the other, advocates of so-called "attachment parenting", the childcare philosophy based on the principles of attachment theory in developmental psychology.
To APs, who favour co-sleeping, stay-at-home parenting, "demand" breastfeeding well into the toddler years and a relaxed approach to the setting of behavioural boundaries, Gina Ford's methods are cruel. Fordites, meanwhile, regard attachment parenting as wishy-washy, new-age nonsense - and where, by the way, is the research showing that AP's methods are in any way superior to those of (yucky phrase) "mainstream parenting"?
Most parents, probably without even realising it, employ elements of both philosophies, and there are books for every notch on the spectrum - Ford at one end, APs at the other. Someone like Tracey Hogg, the maternity nurse behind The Baby Whisperer, represents one possible "third way". She stresses the value of routine - hers is based around the acronym EASY: Eat, Activity, Sleep, You. (We gave her a go, but her bizarre habit of dividing babies up into types - Angel, Textbook, Touchy, Spirited, Grumpy - set our teeth on edge.) Then there's Penelope Leach, the author of the seminal childcare manual Your Baby and Child, who thinks routine is broadly a good thing while also dispensing vague nuggets such as: "The happier you can make your baby, the more you will enjoy being with her, and the more you enjoy her, the happier she will be."
But what makes a baby happy? Attachment parents would say "lots of hugs". Gina Ford parents would say "hugs at appropriate moments", obviously, but also regular food and sleep, not to mention being looked after by parents who are happy because they themselves have had decent sleep thanks to Ford's routines. (Getting your baby sleeping through the night from an early age is one of her key goals.)
To be fair, Ford's routines are pretty scary the first time you set eyes on them: "At 6.45am: Baby should be awake and feeding no later than 7am regardless of how often he fed in the night. If your baby is feeding at 5-6am, treat it like a night feed. It should be done as quickly as possible in a dimly lit room without any eye contact or talking."
The trick is to ignore the sometimes harsh, disciplinarian tone and recognise that her approach isn't as inflexible as it seems. As one Mumsnet user advises: "Take it all with a pinch of salt… Use it as a guideline rather than set in stone." Says another: "The overall thing is: babies can have one longer stretch of sleep every day, so it's best to try to get that to be at night by making sure they get enough to eat, and enough - but not too much - sleep during the day."
This was what my wife and I took away from Ford. And after a certain amount of agonised, over-rigid instruction-following with Scarlett, we acquired the confidence to use the same methods in a more relaxed way with our second child, Molly. (I should add that both were sleeping through the night by six weeks. Sorry about that.)
As the author and journalist Christina Hardyment points out in her book Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford, childcare guides are really reflections of broader societal preoccupations. The philosopher Locke (1632-1704) saw infants as blank slates to be experimented upon: small children could not be reasoned with, so needed to be trained using "fear and awe". As the birth rate fell in the late 19th century, a new generation of educated women began to wonder if suffrage and careers weren't more important than being confined to the nursery. "Let no mother condemn herself to be a common or ordinary 'cow' unless she has a real desire to nurse," declared Marion Harland in Common Sense in the Nursery (1885).
What does Gina Ford's popularity tell us about our own age? That time is limited and must be used efficiently. That both parents working full-time is for many a financial necessity. That children are happiest when their parents are least stressed - when their welfare is an integral part of everyday family routine, not busting that routine out of shape.