The algorithm saw me coming. My baby was only a few days old when my Instagram feed began filling up with posts about gentle parenting, a decades-old child-rearing trend now sweeping social media sites. Worthy soundbites from so-called experts were presented in pastel-themed posts that in the lonely weeks of endless breastfeeds and sleepless nights were appealing.
In my exhausted, hormone-ridden state, as I tried to figure out how to be the best mother I could be, I soaked up its simple philosophy: “Beneath every behaviour is a feeling”; “Ways to say no without saying no”’; “Feeding [your baby] to sleep is the biological norm”; “Having your baby on you all the time is not a bad habit, it’s simply what they need”; “Responding to your baby protects their mental health”.
I decided, in the glow of my iPhone, warm baby asleep in my arms, that gentle parenting was for me.
Five months later I was on the floor of my bedroom, sobbing. My son screamed in front of me. For five months I had (rather smugly, I see now) fed him to sleep every nap time and every night. I had shunned sleep training, even though I was exhausted and overwhelmed, and hadn’t had a night off since he was born, hadn’t cooked myself dinner for months and felt completely alone despite having an incredibly supportive partner.
Sleep training felt like it would be out of step with my gentle-parenting approach – or, more accurately, with the posts that still flooded my Instagram feed. But this was the 10th night in a row that he had failed to fall asleep after a feed and I had no other tools in my arsenal. As I sobbed harder, he screamed louder. Nothing about this felt gentle.
Although Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube have introduced gentle parenting to a new generation of parents, the method has been around for many years under different guises, including “attachment parenting”. According to its supporters, it’s all about having understanding, empathy, and respect for the child and their behaviour, as opposed to a more traditional rewards and punishment-based system.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book, explains that people have been raising children this way for centuries – and that social media is both a blessing and a curse.
“It’s great that more people are talking about more empathetic, respectful styles of parenting. However, there is a lot of misinformation out there,” she says. “I don’t recognise most of the videos as true gentle parenting. People assume it is a weird, hippy, alternative, pushover style of parenting where children rule the roost and parents have to be superhuman martyrs.”
In practice, according to Ockwell-Smith, gentle parenting involves – among other things – seeing traditionally “bad” behaviour as an unmet need; understanding that most praise – especially outcome-based praise – is shallow and unnecessary as it removes a child’s intrinsic motivation to behave a certain way; and recognising that a child needs an adult to be a “secure base” and so separation of child and parent should not be forced.
Realistic tips for gentle parenting
Learn about child brain development. Understanding what they are genuinely capable of at each stage is the most important step (my book Beginnings, out soon, is about exactly this).
Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Imagine how you would have felt at their age and what you needed from your parents.
Drop the terms “naughty” and “manipulative” from your vocabulary. Children misbehave because they are struggling with something and feel dysregulated.
Take care of yourself and work through your triggers. As children, most of us were raised to believe that children were naughty and manipulative and we also tend to subconsciously reenact the same sort of punitive discipline that we received as children. To parent gently, you need to break that cycle.
Trust your instincts. If they are screaming at you to pick up your baby or hug your toddler to sleep, listen to them – they are there for a reason.
It is, essentially, the opposite of controversial British author Gina Ford’s approach, which recommends that babies are fed on a strict schedule, put in their own rooms as early as possible, and that bedtime eye contact and interaction are avoided to teach babies that it’s not playtime.
“There are still discipline and boundaries [with gentle parenting], they are just reinforced with empathy,” adds Ockwell-Smith. The reality, though, is that gentle parenting – or, at least, the depiction of it on social media – can leave parents feeling they are falling short. Mother-of-three Sami, from Lancashire, attempted the method with her young daughter but struggled.
She tried to talk to her daughter and explain the consequences of her actions rather than shouting. “I found trying to show boundaries extremely hard,” she says. “She took my gentleness as a weakness and knew she could misbehave and very little would happen.”
Things came to a head when Sami realised she was struggling to leave the house with her daughter. “She would scream, shout, throw herself on the floor,” she says.
Sami introduced the concept of time-outs, something gentle-parenting supporters do not recommend because, they say, young children don’t have the emotional maturity to sit alone and contemplate their actions.
“I would be stricter when boundaries were broken; telling her exactly what she was doing was wrong and that it had to stop.”
According to Sami, her daughter, now two and a half, has become less destructive and less violent. “She is happier. I feel less exhausted. And we are both getting along much better,” says Sami.
YouTuber and gentle-parenting advocate SJ Strum, however, has had a more positive experience with the method. The mother of three, the eldest of whom is now 12, says gentle parenting transformed the way she is raising her children.
“Realising children aren’t naughty when they misbehave, they’re just having a feeling, is the biggest shift,” she explains. “Getting out of the cycle of punishing or bribing our children to behave in a certain way takes daily practice.”
Gently parenting a soon-to-be teenager has its own challenges, Strum says. “Teens use language that’s much more grown-up but still act on emotions,” she explains. “As a parent, it can be hard to accept that we can’t control their behaviour, only our reaction to it.”
I’m not entirely convinced that, as a new mum who is trying her best but is often overwhelmed, wagging a finger in my own face is helpful. “I always talk about ‘the good-enough parent’, the one who screws up regularly, but makes things right with their children after,” says Ockwell-Smith. “It’s really important that we’re not perfect as a parent.”
Well, that’s a relief. Because I did embrace sleep training, after all. Gently. Enough to give me my sanity back and allow me to enjoy the days with my son without dreading the nights. It means my partner can now put him to bed. I’ve had a few evenings out. I cook dinner most nights while I listen to a podcast or watch trash on YouTube. Things that make me feel like me.
I hope that makes me a good-enough parent. The voice of my inner critic – or, more accurately, some of the parenting accounts I follow on Instagram – still make me doubt myself, of course. Maybe I’m not doing enough. Maybe I’m damaging my son in some way by not being as gentle as I could be.
And that, I think, is where my issue with gentle parenting lies: the name. Because the connotations of the term gentle are that if I’m not being gentle, as per the method, then maybe I’m being harsh, unkind, perhaps even cruel to the thing I love most in the world. Which is impossible to imagine and actually quite traumatic to contemplate.
What’s more (and maybe this is because the practice’s social media supporters tend to be mums not dads) the term gentle seems to me to feed a feminine stereotype by suggesting that women should be nurturing, kind, warm or passive. Not strong, decisive, or powerful. Or flawed or frustrated or struggling. Perhaps if it were termed “intuitive parenting” then I’d be more inclined to get on board.
Certainly, there are elements of this parenting style that I like and plan to follow where possible – not least being aware of my child’s emotional development and accommodating accordingly and responsively. But gentle? Gentle doesn’t feel gentle enough on me, the parent.
And so, as my son grows and his needs change, I hope I’m able to remind myself that more important than being a gentle parent is being a good-enough parent and that is more than good enough for me.