parent-led parenting

Have you heard other parents talk about parent-led parenting? Wondering what it is? We explore the theory and practice to help you decide if it’s right for you.

So what exactly is parent-led parenting?

This approach sits at the opposite end of the spectrum to attachment parenting. Parents set the family schedule, including the baby’s routine (when they feed, sleep and play). Some feel it is the most responsive way to address the needs of the whole family. Parent-led parenting is also called limit-setting parenting.

It’s also incredibly popular. Parent-led parenting helps parents to avoid having to work out what baby needs because the routine tells them what the problem is likely to be. That is the precise reason people like routines. Parent-led routines claim to prevent crying because they ensure baby is fed often enough and gets enough daytimes naps. But the claims made are not supported by evidence.

It’s hard to disagree that we need boundaries. Otherwise, your little one might end up eating an entire packet of biscuits in one sitting, and binge watching the whole of CBeebies. Setting limits has also been shown to benefit our health.

In studies of older children who have set bedtimes, the results are clear. Those with a set bedtime are better behaved and less likely to suffer from mental health problems, including depression and suicidal thoughts (Short et al, 2011; Kelley et al, 2013)

The F word

Gina Ford is still the best known advocate of parent-led parenting, although she remains controversial. She believes the majority of babies thrive and are happier in a routine (Ford, 2006). The idea being you help them regulate their internal clock.

As a new parent, you’ll probably get involved in a Gina Ford conversation or two. Ford goes to lengths to point out her parenting style is focused on the needs of the baby. Contrary to popular belief, she says younger babies should never be left to cry for longer than two or three minutes (ContentedBaby.com, 2019).

A 2016 study showed that leaving six- to eight-month-old babies to cry at bedtime improves their sleep (Gradisar et al, 216). On the other hand, there is evidence that leaving a very small baby to cry can adversely affect how their brain develops (Ludlington-Hoe et al, 2002; Sunderland and Panksepp, 2006). See our articles about sleep training and whether to leave a baby to cry; but as with so much parenting, it’s best to read up on it and decide for yourself.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Nurse and author Tracy Hogg also believed a degree of predictability for parents and babies is key to a whole-family approach to parenting. The key being that each family member is (and feels) respected. She believed a structured but flexible routine can help with almost all challenges new parents face (Hogg, 2001).

Some people claim the benefits to the baby of routines include:

  • Helping babies learn to regulate their internal clocks.
  • Avoiding unnecessary and excessive crying. How? Because once your baby is in a routine, it’s more likely you can quickly work out what’s wrong. Knowing how much they’ve fed, played and slept takes the guesswork out of a diagnosis.
  • More sleep for longer and sooner as demand feeding can mean more waking at night (Sadeh at al. 2010). One study found at three months, babies who had a routine were more likely to sleep for five or more hours a night without waking or crying (St James-Roberts, 2017). Differences in parenting don’t really affect the baby’s bouts of unsoothable crying as long as they reassure the baby (St James-Roberts et al, 2006).
  • Guaranteeing your baby gets routine feeds might remove the chance of underfeeding your little one. But the snag is that routine feeding reduces breastmilk supply whereas feeding on demand optimised breastmilk production (NHS, 2019).

Some people claim the benefits to the parent of routines include:

  • Helping parents understand the real reason for the cries. 
  • A degree of free time in the evening for parents to recuperate and connect with each other.
  • Going back to work – as many of us have to – is easier as there’s already a routine established.

What does parent-led parenting involve?

At the heart of parent-led parenting is routine. Best-selling baby whisperer, Tracy Hogg developed one example of a flexible routine that has become very popular. E(eat). A(activity). S(sleep). Y(you time). This is a set pattern of events in baby’s day, which parents can repeat throughout the day at regular intervals without adhering to the clock (Hogg, 2001).

What exactly is in the routine?

To start with, babies don’t have that varied a to-do list. Eat, sleep, play, poo, cry and gurgle. Taking the main elements of life and doing them regularly can be a boon to all involved. Parent-led parenting fans say, as with the biscuits and CBeebies, we all need a little guidance at the start.

Things to plan:

  • Regular, structured feeding and daytime nap times.
  • Scheduling short activity periods after feeds, followed by naps to reduce over-stimulation.
  • Using a bedtime routine from around six to eight weeks old. This could include:
    • having a bath
    • changing into night clothes and a fresh nappy
    • putting them to bed
    • reading a bedtime story
    • dimming the lights in the room to create a calm atmosphere
    • giving a goodnight kiss and cuddle
    • singing a lullaby or having a wind-up musical mobile you can turn on when you've put your baby to bed.

(NHS, 2016)

Why the controversy?

Critics express this method is too parent-centric. But the reality is more nuanced.

Parent-led supporters believe the health of the family needs to be considered. This includes parents’ mental health.

Many parents tell us the ability to predict the structure of your day can be useful. Particularly if and when going back to work creeps in or when the demands of parenting (and lack of sleep) become overwhelming. It’s common knowledge that poor parental mental health can negatively affect children (NSPCC), and parent-led parenting can provide vital respite.

Some elements don’t sit comfortably with many. Some disagree with only cuddling you baby when they need it, not when you do. And there’s always the leaving them to cry debate…

As with attachment, mindful or positive parenting styles, a few of the ideas might work for you, but don’t feel you have to slavishly follow any of them. It's really about finding your own parenting style.

This page was last reviewed in March 2019.

Further information

For more advice and ideas when it comes to all aspects of parenting, see our other articles on parenting styles, such as our one on the most popular styles and how to identify yours, through to how to raise my child to be happy, confident and considerate.

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

ContentedBaby.com (2019) Available from: http://www.contentedbaby.com/FAQ-Routines.htm#CryingToSleep [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

Ford G. (2006) The new contented little baby book. Vermillion. St Ives. [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

Gradisar M, Jackson K, Spurrier NJ, Gibson J, Whitham J, Williams AS, Dolby R and Kennaway DJ. (2016) Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Pediatrics (137)6.  Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4643535/ [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

Hogg T and Blau M. (2001) Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. Vermillion. London. [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

Kelly Y, Kelly J and Sacker A. (2013) Changes in Bedtime Schedules and Behavioral Difficulties in 7 Year Old Children. Pediatrics. (132)5. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24127471 [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

Ludington-Hoe SM, Cong X, Hashemi F. (2002) Infant crying: nature, physiologic consequences, and select interventions. Neonatal Netw. 21(2):29-36. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11923998 [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

NHS. (2016) Helping your baby to sleep. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/getting-baby-to-sleep/#establishing-a-baby-bedtime-routine [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

NHS. (2019) Things that can affect your milk supply. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/start4life/baby/breastfeeding/things-that-can-affect-your-milk-supply/ [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

NSPCC. Parental mental health. Available from: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-protection-system/parental-mental-health/ [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

Sadeh at al. (2010) Parenting and infant sleep. Sleep Medicine Review. (14):89-96. [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

Short MA, Gradisar M, Wright H, Lack LC, Dohnt H, and Carskadon MA. (2011) Time for bed: parent-set bedtimes associated with improved sleep and daytime functioning in adolescents. Sleep, 34(6), 797–800. doi:10.5665/SLEEP.1052. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21629368 [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

St James-Roberts I, Alvarez M, Csipke E, Abramsky T, Goodwin J and Sorgenfrei E. (2006) Infant crying and sleeping in London, Copenhagen and when parents adopt a "proximal" form of care. Pediatrics. 117(6):e1146-55. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16740816 [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

St James-Roberts I, Roberts M, Hovish K and Owen C. (2017) Video evidence that parenting methods predict which infants develop long night-time sleep periods by three months of age. Prim Health Care Res Dev. 18(3):212-226. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28029090 [Accessed 2nd April 2019]

Sunderland M, Panksepp J. (2006) The Science of Parenting. DK Publishing, London.

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