For the past 40 years, maternity nurse Rachel Waddilove has been guiding women through the dense fog of new motherhood. Her methods, spelt out in her parenting manual The Baby Book, first published a decade ago, are controversially traditional – she advocates swaddling, controlled crying and formula – yet her client list includes Hollywood A-listers such as Minnie Driver and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Now Rachel, 68 and a grandmother of six, has decided to bring The Baby Book to a new generation. She has spent the past year compiling a new edition of the book, out this week, and which takes into account mothers’ evolving lifestyles.
“It’s not me who has changed,” she says, “it’s modern mothers. You’re all so busy, you travel so much and you scare yourselves by reading nonsense on the internet. I want to make my message even clearer.”
As a first-time mother three years ago, I was one of Rachel’s “girls”. She showed me how to swaddle Hector, my firstborn, and leave him to settle in his cot. The results were instantaneous: my husband and I began to get a lot more sleep.
Two babies later, however, and I’ve gone soft. My latest addition, Horatio, 12 weeks, is exclusively breastfed, he spends his days attached to me in a sling and has a special cot connected to our bed, which he usually shuns in favour of sleeping next to me.
As I tell Rachel this, she sighs. “Modern parenting is all about the child, and that’s what I don’t like about it,” she says. “I’m not belittling the fact that children are precious – they’re a gift – but we’re building a generation of little tin gods and it’s not creating a very nice society. We’ve lost the plot.”
It is mothers like me, confused by conflicting advice, who led her to rewrite her parenting manual, adding more detail on routine and sleep training and an additional chapter on travelling with a baby – something she has done a lot of with her high-profile clients.
Rachel started out at a Doctor Barnardo’s nursery training college in the 1960s and her down-to-earth advice is mother-, rather than baby-, led. She encourages women not to treat their baby as “kingpin” but to focus on their relationship with their partner and the rest of the family.
“Babies mustn’t think the world revolves around them. They’ll grow up thinking the world owes them a living.”
The key to a happy home life, according to Waddilove, is a loving, flexible routine. The feed and nap times she sets out in her book, while less prescriptive than those recommended by baby guru Gina Ford, encourage a baby to learn to settle themselves in their own bed. “I see myself as being halfway between Gina Ford and Baby Whisperer Tracy Hogg,” Waddilove says.
For Zara Tindall, brought up with horses and boarding school, I imagine Rachel’s training makes perfect sense; more surprising is how well “New Ager” Gwyneth Paltrow, who apparently feeds her children lemon-flavoured flax oil, took her no-nonsense, traditional values. In the foreword to The Baby Book, however, Paltrow happily admits that Rachel’s structured schedule saw Apple sleeping through for seven hours by six weeks. “Rachel’s advice on everything from breastfeeding to parenting was invaluable,” she gushes.
Waddilove turns pale when I mention the “attachment” style of parenting, where babies feed on demand and sleep with their parents. “It’s so constricting,” she says. “I don’t think it’s good for modern family life, where so many mothers have to go back to work.”
The hardest part of her job, Rachel tells me, is teaching mothers that it is OK for their babies to cry. “Very often a baby’s normal way to go to sleep is to have a shout, air their lungs,” she says in typical no-nonsense fashion. “If you rush to them you interrupt the pattern of them falling asleep.”
Once a baby is fed and settled, she advocates “controlled crying” – waiting a certain time before comforting your baby. “Babies should be taught to wait,” she continues. “It’s good training, we all have to fit in. That’s why twins are often nicer.”
And no, your baby is not going to be damaged if you don’t rush to pick them up, she insists. “You’re not leaving a cold, hungry, unloved child to cry for hours. That’s abuse. We’re talking about a baby with a full stomach in a comfy cot learning to self-settle and sleep. That’s parenting.”
Waddilove is similarly strict about co-sleeping, too, suggesting mothers sleep in the same room as their babies for just two or three weeks, rather than the recommended six months. “Babies need to learn to be on their own, in their own cot, rather than in bed with you,” she says. “It’s probably lovely in those early days, but I have mothers ringing me after two or three months because their babies won’t sleep anywhere else.”
Waddilove, who runs a toddler group and works at her local primary school, is adamant that a routine does not mean you ignore a baby’s spiritual and emotional needs.
The book encourages parents to bring love, joy and peace into their child’s lives, and Waddilove even suggests praying over their cots. “I see mothers giving their babies their iPhones, but you need to show children how they fit in to the world, that there is a higher order.”
After years on call to Britain’s most affluent new mothers, Rachel is now focusing on training others to do her job. “I want to pass on my wisdom,” she says. “At the local school I spot the children who don’t sleep at night. It’s better for everyone if they do.”
Does she worry about the backlash against her traditional views when the new book comes out? No, she says, squaring her shoulders, suddenly more farmer’s wife than celebrity maternity nurse. “Of course there will be negative comments, but there are also people out there who want to get some sleep.”