any baby shower these days and you’ll probably be introduced
to the book On Becoming Babywise by Gary Ezzo. You’ll
probably also hear passionate testimonials to its effectiveness
in getting babies to sleep through the night.
But fundamentalist minister
Gary Ezzo, author of the book and champion of his own “parent-directed
feeding” plan (PDF), is not so popular among child development
experts, pediatricians, and lactation consultants—secular
When T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.,
professor emeritus of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School
and world renowned author and lecturer on baby and child development
was asked his opinion of the Babywise parenting books during
an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, he responded, “I’m
horrified. I’m absolutely horrified.”
Who is Gary Ezzo?
Though you’ll never find
it in his secularly packaged book, On Becoming Babywise, 51-year-old
Ezzo spent most of his career as a minister in independent,
evangelical churches. He has no credentials in child development,
healthcare, breastfeeding, or baby care. In fact Angelo Gary
Ezzo never finished an undergraduate degree. In 1983 Ezzo
graduated from Talbot Theological Seminary with a Master’s
of Arts in Ministry degree through a special degree plan offering
Bible courses to ministers without college degrees.
Today Ezzo is executive director
of Growing Families International, with the stated goal of
raising “a godly generation to the glory of God and
not the glory of man.”
The Rise of Growing Families International
In 1984 Ezzo and his wife Anne
Marie, reportedly a “nurse with a background in pediatrics”
(the Ezzo’s have yet to release her credentials publicly),
began teaching parenting classes through the huge Grace Community
Church in Sun Valley, California. With an emphasis on strict
obedience and the promise of rearing morally upright children,
the classes grew.
At some point Ezzo decided that
his techniques were more than just his opinions, they were,
in fact, “God’s way” of raising children.
With this bold proclamation
and the extensive resources offered by Grace Church, Ezzo
began publishing books, tapes, and videos on child rearing,
including Growing Kids God’s Way, Preparation for Parenting,
and Preparation for the Toddler Years. The curriculum was
soon being taught in churches across the country.
In 1989 Ezzo’s rapidly
expanding ministry, Growing Families International, became
a for-profit corporation.
Despite its popularity among
parents, not one documented professional organization devoted
to baby and childcare — evangelical Christian, liberal
Christian, or secular — supports Ezzo’s unorthodox
views and many openly oppose them.
Frequently the controversy has
focused on Ezzo’s philosophy that “God’s
plan” is for babies to be “taught” how to
sleep through the night through carefully scheduled feedings
(“parent-directed feedings”), playtimes and naps;
and by refusing to rock or feed babies who cry when they “ought”
to be sleeping.
Mothers were told, “When
your baby awakens, don’t rush right in to him or her.
Any crying will be temporary, lasting from five to forty-five
Parent-Directed Feeding (PDF)
Parent-directed feeding is based
on Ezzo’s idea that “(babies) are not capable
of regulating their hunger patterns. They need parents to
do this for them;” and Ezzo’s belief that PDF
is an important first step in establishing parental authority
over a child. “Consider the alternative,” he asks
in Preparation for Parenting and Babywise, “Is it the
parent’s job simply to respond to an infant’s
demands? When, then, would this concept switch over to allow
the parents to direct the child? The toddler years? Preteen
or teen years? Hardly. By then you’ve missed the boat”
Ezzo is particularly opposed
to “demand feeding,” recommended by the American
Academy of Pediatrics, in which parents feed infants based
on the infant’s signs or “cues” of hunger.
Though Ezzo frequently states
PDF is “flexible,” his response to the “problem”
of a two-week old infant falling asleep at the breast was:
“You need to keep your baby awake during feeding time.
Babies learn very quickly from the laws of natural consequences.
If your daughter doesn’t eat at one feeding, make her
wait until the next one. Don’t feed her between routine
mealtimes; otherwise, you are teaching her to snack, not eat.”
(Prep., p.193) Such comments have alarmed doctors and lactation
Underweight Babies and PDF
According to evangelical Christian
pediatrician Dr. Matthew Aney, there are reasons to be alarmed
by Ezzo’s approach. Some babies on Ezzo’s parent-directed
feeding plan began returning for pediatric rechecks seriously
underweight — some to the point of being diagnosed “failure-to-thrive”
(a condition of severe undernourishment). “Yet, parents
are often adamant about continuing with the feeding schedule,”
says Aney, “even when advised otherwise by healthcare
Aney, an American Academy of Pediatrics
candidate fellow, and pediatrician at Kaiser Pediatric Urgent
Care Unit in Orange County, California, has investigated at
least 200 cases, nationwide, of poor weight gain and failure-to-thrive
infants associated with Ezzo’s plan. Matthew Hsieh was
one of those cases.
Michelle and Michael Hsieh took
Preparation for Parenting through their church before Matthew
was born. After birth Matthew lost weight rapidly in his first
week. Michelle hedged questions from the lactation consultants
and nurses, “They wanted us to ‘demand feed’,
but we knew better,” says Michelle ruefully. “Demand
feeding was ‘unhealthy.’ We were using Ezzo’s
parent-directed feeding method.”
The baby’s weight, though
low, stabilized for a time, but as Matthew neared eight weeks
— the age Ezzo says night feeding stops — he became
increasingly fussy and irritable.
“Many times my intuition
told me that Matthew was hungry before the scheduled time,”
says Michelle. “Yet I chose to ignore those signals
and instead would comfort him back to sleep. Our training
specifically said that regularly feeding him sooner than our
schedule would interrupt his hunger, digestive, and sleep/wake
cycles (causing, Ezzo says “metabolic confusion”).
We had no reason to argue with this supposed medically-backed
Following his four month check
up, Matthew was diagnosed “Failure to Thrive.”
The Hsieh’s began supplementing
Matthew with solid food as he had little interest in nursing
and wouldn’t take a bottle or cup.
Unfortunately the Hsieh’s
continued with GFI material, believing its claim as “God’s
way,” and when Matthew ate they implemented Ezzo’s
“High Chair Manners.” (In Preparation for the
Toddler Years, known secularly as Babywise Book Two, Ezzo
recommends hand slapping, hand squeezing and isolation for
babies who commit such “wrong behaviors” as putting
their hands in their food, dropping food off the tray, or
banging their plates or utensils.)
Though Matthew initially took
solid food eagerly, he did not like keeping his hands away
from the food. “He did learn to submit to keeping his
hands down (or our holding them down),” states Michelle,
“but his interest in food quickly diminished.”
By 9 1/2 months Matthew Hsieh
stopped eating altogether. He was hospitalized, fed through
an NG (naso-gastric) tube, and given a battery of tests to
determine if his eating problem was related to a physical
Matthew’s tests all came
Michelle was taught how to intubate
Matthew at home and, after leaving the hospital, he remained
on the feeding tube for five months.
Michael and Michelle Hsieh,
filled with “anger, guilt and remorse” finally
began to question Ezzo’s philosophy and credentials.
Today, at 20 months, Matthew
is off the feeding tube, but has yet to gain weight. The Hsiehs
have become activists, warning other parents of the dangers
of Ezzo’s philosophies.
Evangelical Professionals Speak Out
Dr. James Dobson, an evangelical
Christian with a Ph.D. in Child Development, and his ministry
Focus on the Family, issued a public statement of non-support
of Ezzo’s work due to “numerous letters from parents,
pastors, midwives, physicians, and lactation professionals
regarding cases of failure-to-thrive in infants subjected
to the Ezzo’s program.”
Dobson was particularly critical
of Ezzo’s use of scripture to support leaving a baby
to cry: “Praise God,” wrote Ezzo, “that
the Father did not intervene when His son cried out on the
Dr. Georgiana Rodiger, graduate
of Fuller Theological Seminary (Evangelical) with an M.A.
in theology and a Ph.D. in psychology writes, “I am
appalled by the psychological and theological irresponsibility
of the Ezzos.” The Ezzos are leading many families astray...”
Barbara Francis, Psy.D., MFCC,
a Christian counselor and outspoken critic of the Ezzo’s,
writes, “The message is clear.” GFI is good; all
other parenting techniques, including those endorsed by well-respected
Christian experts, are bad. If you choose to follow God, you
will follow GFI.”
Yet, despite mounting concerns,
the Ezzo’s empire grew— and quietly expanded.
The Secret Birth of Babywise
In 1995 Ezzo did something relatively
unheard of in Christian publishing: he took his book Preparation
For Parenting, stripped it of all religious language, added
a “co-author,” Colorado pediatrician Robert Bucknam
(whose contribution appears limited to the foreword), and,
without a single reference to his status as a minister, marketed
it secularly under the title On Becoming Babywise.
With a promise that the book
“successfully and naturally trains children to sleep
through the night before the age of eight weeks,” the
book’s popularity skyrocketed. An unsuspecting public
embraced the Babywise claim of being a “strategy for
responsible parenting,” unaware of its philosophical
roots, its controversies or its dangers.
Leah’s Story (names changed)
Dr. William Moore read Babywise
when his daughter, Jan, gave him a copy before his first grandchild,
Leah, was born. Babywise had been recommended to Jan by friends
at church and was sold in her church’s bookstore.
“I was shocked at the
medical misinformation in the book,” says Moore, “but
when I tried to talk to my daughter she was adamant that the
information was not only correct, it was ‘God’s
Visits to the family were difficult
for Moore and his wife as Jan often responded to Leah’s
cries with a glance at the clock and a statement such as,
“She’s got to wait another 30 minutes.”
But, when it was “time” for the scheduled feeding,
Leah had often given up and fallen into an exhausted sleep.
Jan would then try to awaken Leah following Ezzo’s recommendations
of undressing the baby, and wiping her face with a wet washcloth.
But the exhausted baby often nursed poorly.
Soon Jan’s milk supply,
not adequately stimulated by the tired, weakened baby, began
dwindling. By Leah’s 6-week check up she was a pound
below her birth weight.
“In addition to weight
loss,” Moore states, “Leah’s muscle tone
was poor, she appeared listless, would not make eye contact,
and was rapidly losing even her sucking reflex.” All
signs of severe malnutrition or Failure-to-Thrive.
For several days Leah’s
pediatrician directed Jan to feed Leah using a syringe and
a small tube until the baby gained enough strength to suck.
Despite the baby’s serious
medical problems, Jan and her husband deny that Ezzo’s
PDF was the cause. Though they have since followed their pediatrician’s
advice to feed their baby on demand, they are still committed
to the GFI parenting program that, in Moore’s opinion,
almost killed their baby.
Grace Community Church Disavows Ezzo
In 1995, the elders of Grace
Community Church, met with Ezzo to outline four significant
concerns they had about the GFI material. Ezzo responded by
resigning as an elder and leaving the church. In 1997 the
church publicly stated that it no longer supports GFI or sells
its materials. In addition to two theological issues, the
church criticized Ezzo for:
1. A blurring of the line between
that which is truly Biblical and what are simple matters of
preference. “Portraying scheduled feeding as the true
Biblical practice, GFI strongly implies that demand feeding
should be regarded as an unbiblical, humansitic — even
sinful — approach to caring for infants. As elders,
we see no biblical basis whatsoever for GFI’s dogmatism
on this issue.”
2. A tendency to isolationism.
“GFI parents tend to insulate their children from other
children — including Christian children — who
are not a part of the GFI “community,” i.e., those
not indoctrinated in GFI principles. GFI parents have been
known to sever all relationships with non-GFI families. To
some degree, GFI teaching is directly responsible for encouraging
Is GFI a Cult?
About this same time The Christian
Research Institute, well respected in the evangelical community
as a “cult-watch” organization, was deluged with
requests for information about GFI.
Kathleen Terner, M.B.A., research
associate at the Christian Research Institute, spent two years
investigating GFI. The results were published in the Christian
Research Journal (spring, 1998). According to the Institute’s
criteria, GFI was not characterized a cult because, “it
affirms the fundamental doctrines of historic Christianity.”
However, Terner found that “GFI does indeed exhibit
five cultic characteristics”:
1.Scripture twisting and de
facto assertion of extrabiblical revelation.
“Teachings not found in the Bible (on child rearing)
are accorded the status of divine revelation.”
2. Authoritarianism. “The
Ezzo’s word on parenting seems to close the matter irrespective
of the evidence.”
3. Exclusivism. “The Ezzos
are considered virtually the only ones who are teaching biblical
truth on their subject.”
4. Isolationism. “Members
of the GFI ‘community’ have been shielded from
teachings and opinions contrary to the Ezzo way.”
5. Physical and emotional endangerment.
“As an unintended, but natural consequence of following
GFI teaching, babies are sometimes left to cry for hours and
some newborns are underfed and underdeveloped.”
Why Does Babywise ”Work” for Many Babies?
Babywise seems to work because
many babies’s natural schedule fits the basic schedule
recommended in Babywise. Demand, or schedule fed, these babies
would probably sleep through the night by eight to ten weeks.
“Yes, there are averages
that may fit into a bell-shaped curve model,” write
lactation experts Jan Barger, RN, MA, IBCLC, and Lisa Marasco,
BA, IBCLC, in their paper Examining Evidence for Cue feeding
of Breastfed Infants, “But by definition,” they
add, “there will also be babies who fall on either side”
For the babies who don’t
fit in the bell curve, there is another, more serious reason
Babywise “works.” Dr. Barbara Francis, in her
critique of Babywise, states: “Research (of families)
and observational studies of institutionalized children, consistently
indicate that there are two types of babies who cry the least:
those with highly responsive parents who respond quickly and
consistently, and those babies who learn that their cries
will go unheeded, and so give up hope. (Dennis, 1973; Provence
and Lipton, 1962).
The High Cost of Letting Babies Cry
In Babywise, parents are assured
that “There is no evidence to prove that an immediate
response to every cry teaches a baby anything about love,
just as there is no evidence to prove that a little crying
fosters feelings of insecurity.”
On the contrary, there is much
medical evidence that prolonged crying is harmful for babies.
Emde, Harmon and Metcalf in their journal article “Stress
and Neonatal Sleep,” report that the hormone cortisol
is released into the bloodstream during prolonged crying and
that such crying affects weight gain as it burns calories
and drains energy leaving babies “too weak or too sleepy
Additionally, as Barbara Wright,
M.A., L.P.C., Certified Child Development Specialist with
Hillcrest Center for Women’s Health, says, “The
main psychological work in the first year of life is to learn
to trust, love, and attach. If a baby’s cries are not
responded to, the baby learns that she can’t trust,
that her needs won’t be met.”
Why Has Ezzo Gained Such a Following?
“People follow Ezzo because
they want to believe they can have both a new baby and a good
night’s sleep,” says Dr. Aney, adding, “For
many people it never enters into the realm of possibility
that if it’s in print, it could be untrue — especially
when their churches promote it.”
For more information about the
facts stated in this article or to report a condition of poor
weight gain or failure-to-thrive associated with Babywise
or Preparation for Parenting, contact Matthew T. Aney, MD,
For more information about the
controversy surrounding Babywise check the following websites:
Cindy Webb, B.S., worked professionally in the
field of child development and parenting for ten years (five
of those years at the prestigious Child Study Center in Fort
Worth, TX.), before becoming a free-lance writer. She and
her husband, a Presbyterian minister, have two children.