It’s good if your baby doesn’t sleep through the night? That’s misogynistic mothering bullshit.

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This is public service announcement on how to protect yourself from misogynistic mothering bullshit (MMB). Sadly, too much of what passes for parenting advice in 2019 is MMB.

Consider the latest example. Why it’s actually a good thing if your baby doesn’t sleep through the night is misogynistic mothering bullshit of the highest order, involving as it does fabrication of benefits for babies to justify suffering of mothers.

Professor Peter Fleming who specialises in developmental psychology at the University of Bristol told Buzzfeed that babies are not designed to sleep for long periods, and it’s normal for them to wake.

“It’s not good for them, and there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there is any benefit to anybody from having a child that sleeps longer and consistently.

That is classic MMB, but like most misogynistic mothering lies it’s bullshit with a purpose. The purpose is to shame mothers who dare to consider their own needs.

It’s bullshit with a purpose: to shame mothers who dare to consider their own needs.

How can you recognize MMB like this. I hereby offer Tuteur’s Criteria to help you protect yourself.

1. Was it promulgated by an old white man?

Misogynistic mothering bullshit is almost always propagated by old white men. This is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criterion of MMB, but it is startlingly common. Don’t misunderstand me; old white men aren’t all bad and can occasionally offer scientifically valid insights about mothering. But Dr. Peter Fleming follows the path from Grantly Dick-Read in the 1930’s to William Sears in the 1990’s, a long tradition of old white men offering bullshit advice meant to keep women immured in the home.

2. Does it invokes the naturalistic fallacy and/or the Panglossian paradigm?

The naturalistic fallacy is the is/ought fallacy; if something is a certain way in nature, that’s the best way for it to be. The Panglossian paradigm is the belief that every human organ/function/behavior is a product of intense evolutionary selection, as opposed to the reality that evolution does not produce perfection, that traits beneficial in one evolutionary environment may not be beneficial in another and that there are genetic limits to evolution.

Invoking the “design” of babies, as Dr. Fleming does above, represents both the naturalistic fallacy and the Panglossian paradigm. Even if babies were “designed” to wake during the night that doesn’t mean it’s good for babies or good for mothers.

3. Does it rely on the noble savage trope, homogenizing tens of thousands of years of human existence and thousands of cultures into one set of “ancestors” who had one set of parenting practices?

There is no single way that human mothers have raised children across time and cultures. Moreover, existing indigenous people are not necessarily representative of ancient human cultures any more than existing animals are representative of animals that existed in the past.

There’s no clearer indicator of the noble savage trope that the racist invocation of black African mothers. Dr. Fleming once again comes through:

I’ve done quite a lot of work in Africa and in various other places and babies are carried around with their mother all the time. They’re asleep when they need to sleep and they’re awake when they need to be awake, but they’re constantly with their mother and that facilitates breastfeeding.

4. Does it fabricate benefits for babies that are not supported by or are directly contradicted by scientific evidence?

Dr. Fleming does not appear to be constrained by scientific evidence at all. He surrenders himself to fantasy. He claims that there are no benefits to babies from sleeping well when existing scientific evidence is either agnostic on that point or associates improved sleep with improved infant wellbeing. His claim that mothers don’t benefit from long stretches of uninterrupted sleep is MMB par excellence. There is a reason why sleep deprivation is considered torture … because it IS torture. Poor quality sleep is associated with postpartum depression and other harms to women.

Professor Fleming explains that there’s a very clever reason why babies wake through the night.

“Biologically that’s a big advantage because they will have more attention from their two primary caregivers at that time of day than at any other, because there are fewer distractions.

Is this guy on drugs? Does he imagine that parenting across time and culture involved fathers caring for their babies? What evidence does he have that by waking up during the night improved the father-infant relationship or the overall wellbeing of babies? None, of course. His prejudice in favor of traditional two parent nuclear families is showing here.

Professor Fleming makes the connection between very high levels of developmental and intellectual achievement and not sleeping throughout the night.

It’s hard to find a clearer example of MMB than that nonsensical claim.

5. Does it imply that human evolution stopped 20,000 years ago and that our current culture is incompatible with our evolution?

Professor Fleming says biological sleep patterns can’t suddenly be changed just because the modern world operates to a different schedule than humans did thousands of years ago.

Fleming said: “One needs to remember that society changes faster than biology. A biological pattern that’s taken half a million years to develop can’t just be suddenly ignored and turned around…

Really? Then how did humans develop lactose tolerance very quickly after the introduction of animal milk into the human diet? Because the mutation that allowed humans to benefit from the ability to digest animal milk was present in the human population and selection pressure quickly favored it and allowed for rapid spread.

6. Does it promote the modern nuclear family with mother relegated to the home as “best,” ignoring the traditional tribal band where everyone worked to improve the survival of the group.

Though nearly all MMB claims purport to be about restoring traditional mothering practices, the real goal is making recent mothering practices (those developed within the past 1-2 centuries) normative. It is very similar in that sense to efforts by homophobic activists to restore “traditional marriage” imagining that a man and a woman marrying for love is traditional when the truth is that “traditional marriage” was about families trading their sons and daughters for protective alliances and material gain.

To qualify as MMB, a claim doesn’t need to meet all of Tuteur’s Criteria for misogynistic mothering bullshit but Dr. Fleming’s claims do meet them all. What’s really going on here?

Dr. Fleming seeks to promote breastfeeding and the deadly practice of bedsharing.

[Babies are] asleep when they need to sleep and they’re awake when they need to be awake, but they’re constantly with their mother and that facilitates breastfeeding…

The idea that sharing a sleep surface with your baby is in anyway wrong, abnormal or peculiar is just nonsense,” he says. “Most people in the world would see that view as bizarre – 90pc of the human infants on this planet sleep that way every night and over the half a million years of human evolution that’s been the norm.

Over the half million years of human evolution, massive child mortality has also been the norm. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it safe, healthy or “best.”

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  • Ayr

    He is also quoted on another page “there is a link between very high levels of developmental and intellectual achievement and not sleeping throughout the night.” I call BS because two of my friends three daughters never slept through the night, one has serious attention and boundary issues and the other screams and I mean screams, red in the face, sometimes almost blue in the face, until she gets her way, and she doesn’t like her mother giving attention to anyone but her. Neither of them walked until they were 18 months and never even tried to speak until they were three. Another friend whose oldest son woke all the time didn’t walk until he was over two years old and even though he almost is five he still talks like a three year old. While my son slept through the night was walking at 12 months started talking at 18 months, then stopped after he got a few double ear infections back to back, but is starting to talk again with the help of speech therapy, though it looks like there might be fluid on his ears and that is causing the problem. But at 14 months he sat in his high chair with a clear sippy cup and a clear snack cup, lined them up and leaned over to look through them and see how the light and objects seen though them changed as he moved one of the cups, then went back to being a typical toddler. I guess my point is there really is no connection between how much sleep a child gets and how intelligent they are.
    Here is the link to the other page https://www.healthymummy.com/smarter-babies-need-less-sleep/?fbclid=IwAR1IvISUVzxpowQTxbHXw_6OAzCuO7cVbPbdhC_aDVqIu2Uis8CNa59O0m8

  • Mel

    So Spawn had a rule starting at 36 weeks gestation that he would not wake up for a midnight feed. He’d eat at 9pm, fall asleep by 10pm, then ignore all external inputs until 2:30-3am when he wanted to be fed again.

    One of my favorite memories of him was the one time I managed to wake him up for a midnight feed. I think it was the combination of taking off his jammies, changing his diaper and wiping him down with a damp washcloth that did the trick. Little Newborn Spawn opened both eyes slightly, gave me the stink-eye and started growling and grumbling at me. I suspect he said the following: “Did you READ your parenting book? Seriously! I read my baby book and it says on page 36 that parents LIKE it when babies sleep at night. I’m being a GOOD baby – so what is wrong with you? Midnight is tummy food time – it says so on page 3,875 under “Instructions for Babies with Extra Equipment: Feeding Tubes.” Put the food in my tummy and I’ll see you in a few hours ”

    He then grumpily snuggled down into my arms and fell asleep in protest. He was his usual charming self at 3 am.

    That was the only time he woke up for a midnight feed. That was the first night feed we dropped – because seriously, he was not that into it. The next feed that consolidated was his 3am feed so we had a kid who was sleeping from 10 pm – 6 am by three months.

    I pity all the moms – but especially all the babies – who are trying to sleep through the night only to have a mom wake them up for another feed to make them smarter…or more natural…or whatever.

    • rational thinker

      I always looked at it this way; I would be pissed if someone woke me up just to ask me if I was hungry so I didn’t do that to my baby.

  • Elizabeth A

    When my youngest was nine months old, she hit the nine month sleep regression like a wrecking ball. She started sleeping only for forty minute stretches, punctuated by howling. After he two weeks of this, our pediatrician sat me down at a well-child visit and explained that there are no observable, long-term harms caused by well-cared for babies crying in cribs, but that outcomes are significantly less rosy for babies whose moms drive into the walls of freeway tunnels.

    The baby did not begin sleeping any better terribly soon, but I turned off the baby monitor.

    • If the baby’s screaming, s/he is obviously breathing.

  • Box of Salt

    Posted after reading the linked piece but before reading all of Dr Amy’s take

    Hi Peter Fleming, I’m sorry your own children kept you up at night (“babies sleep during the day and want to be awake the most from 6pm to midnight”), but that doesn’t you get to advise the rest of us to suffer as you did.

    My opinion is that Peter Fleming’s opinions as related by Geraldine Gittens are unadulterated nonsense.

    Human beings are not nocturnal. There is **no** benefit to an infant keeping their caregivers in a prolonged sleep deprived state. None!

    I don’t care how many places in African and elsewhere Peter Fleming observed mothers carrying their babies around. That does not address the issues facing mothers in the parts of the world where we are not relegated mainly to the role of mother.

    And I’d like to see the research that suggests to him that there is a “connection between very high levels of developmental and intellectual achievement and not sleeping throughout the night.” No, really, show me. I have n = 2 at my house and the kid who slept better as an infant is doing just as well academically as the one who needed to be fed at night.

    Let’s go back to: human beings are not nocturnal. We aren’t. I have pushed through periods of prolonged sleep deprivation in order to achieve goals, or just survive circumstances. Yes, we perform – and sometimes well – under the conditions of sleep deprivation in order to survive. It isn’t optimal.

    I am not a better parent when I have not had enough sleep.

    I figured that one out when my younger child was an infant, and the older one was a patience-challenging-two-year-old. Why didn’t Peter Fleming?

    Why would any one want to promote sleep deprivation? (Besides for indoctrinating members of your cult.) The only answer I can come up with is the equivalent of hazing: “Everyone else should suffer just as I did.”

    I’m not buying it.

    And from my own experience, it doesn’t have to happen.

  • rational thinker

    My son was sleeping all night when he was one week old, also exclusively formula fed. He would fall asleep at 6:00 pm and sleep until 7:00am the next morning. After waking up at 7:00 am he would have a bottle get dressed/changed and then play or lay in crib for about an hour then nap from about 8:00 am to 9:00 am. He was a very happy and well behaved baby. I got lectured from quite a few people who had babies the same age that I should be waking him up every 4 hours. To which I replied “hell no” every time. I told them if he is hungry he will wake up and let me know. I was the only mom in that group who did not constantly have raccoon eyes from fatigue. How did my son turn out? Well 16 1/2 years later he is a honor roll student with a 120 IQ (even though he was formula fed) and very creative and is going to film school after he graduates to be a director/film maker and already has written 2 movie scripts. So all the assholes who yelled at me for not breastfeeding and not waking him up every four hours and for being too young (I was 17 years old when I had him) can go ahead and f*** themselves.

    • Allie

      If there is one hard and fast rule in this turvy-topsy world, it’s “NEVER wake a sleeping baby!”

  • mabelcruet

    Peter Fleming has produced a lot of great work in the past-he is genuinely a leader in the study of SUDI-but that paper sounds like a load of pap, definitely not his usual standard. He’s normally fairly sensible.

    • Box of Salt

      So is that horrible commentary authored by Geraldine Gittens indicative of Peter Fleming’s real opinions, or is it just natural parenting spin bolstred by quotations from someone who the rest of us should consider an expert?

      And if it’s her spin, what does Fleming really think? And why isn’t he clarifying it?

      • mabelcruet

        I’m hoping it’s been misinterpreted or spun to suit a specific agenda. In the UK he led a huge SUDI research project looking at masses of evidence with multiple controls for each case-it fundamentally changed how we investigate these deaths and looked at how we target at risk families and improve care and reduce death rates. There is now a UK wide established standard protocol on how these deaths are dealt with based on this-it was scientifically rigorous, thorough and well evidenced, so it surprises me that he’s apparently making nebulous and non-evidenced opinions.

  • Casual Verbosity

    Oh my goodness. I just read the linked article and it is truly awful in so many ways.
    First of all, in the absence of any actual evidence that babies who wake more frequently have better outcomes than those who wake less frequently, he takes a phenomenon that is known to occur and assumes it must have an evolutionary benefit. Now if there is evidence to show better outcomes then I would love to see it, because sleep is my special subject area and that would be professionally interesting. However, based on what IS widely known about the invaluable role of sleep in infant brain development, the claim that waking more frequently is beneficial would seem counterintuitive. I did just seek out the source article (which, incidentally was posted in April 2015 – nice Frankenarticle) that was mentioned in the linked article, and there is a vague reference to an association between broken sleep and higher intelligence and improved mental health, so I’ll have to look into that. However, knowing how low the bar is often set for correlational research, I’m not holding my breath that the evidence will be solid. On a related note, many of the assertions made in source article have also been debunked – see “Why We Sleep” by Dr Matthew Walker.
    But possibly the worst part of this guy’s claims is that it’s actually safer to co-sleep (as in, the kind of co-sleeping where you share a sleep surface) than to have a baby in their own space. His evidence for that? He saw hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa do it, therefore it must be ideal. Fml.

    • Anna

      I wonder if he is referring mainly to very young babies and how many wakes overnight. Id agree its normal for small babies to wake through the night and even toddlers waking once or twice is pretty common. What is “normalised” in bf support groups though is never sleeping longer than 2hours ever. Its not uncommon to read comments of women at the end of their rope with a baby waking every 40mins round the clock and she is always told its normal and keep going. Also you read comments of babies over 6months feeding ALL night even literally sleeping with the nipple in their mouth all night, Mothers with sore necks and backs, but no-one would ever dare suggest baby isnt getting enough or a bottle of formula to get a decent stretch. Wanting more than 2hours sleep makes you “lazy and selfish”. And this is “feminism” and “informed” parenting. I doubt the Professor is referring to that kind of wakefulness. It cant be good for babies and it certainly isnt good for Mothers. Anecdotally I could do severals wakes a night at 27 with my eldest but now at 39 with my youngest 2-3times is ROUGH. I suppose having babies this age is not the “biological norm”, but noone would suggest natural nature be followed to the tee and we Mother between 15 and say 28 as nature intended and die around 40 as nature intended. BTW my formula fed just shy of 5week old slept about 10-3 last night, with the help of teh evil dummy. Shes having a wee booby suck once or twice a day for comfort. Im LOVING the newborn period this time and just feel bad I wasted it last time Mothering a breast pump.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Having babies at your age is totally biologically normal if you’re not dead already from your previous births, that is. Women had babies right up until they couldn’t anymore if they managed to survive until then, with childbirth being the biggest threat to that. Because they had no choice without effective birth control. In societies where this is still the cases, women popping out kids into their 40s whether or not they want to is still common.

        What’s new is women that age having a baby and having it be their first or second or third pregnancy because they are able to actually plan their families. Or being actually alive and fertile to have that baby because they didn’t die from a previous birth or have their ability to have more children permanently destroyed (as happened to 2 of my great-grandmothers when they were still quite young.) And there are people out there lamenting all of the developments that make this possible.

      • The Kids Aren’t AltRight

        I HATE how this shit always gets passed off as feminism.

    • rational thinker

      I think the reason moms in hunter gatherer tribes keep their babies close at all times is because babies that are left alone in that part of the world make an easy snack for the lions living a half a mile away.

      • Sarah

        Plus, if you have things to do or nobody eats then a sling is the easiest way. When you live marginally you can’t necessarily afford to spare anyone from other work to keep an eye on a baby.

  • space_upstairs

    So should I worry that my one-week-old will turn out dumb because she already sleeps up to 4.5 hours a stretch and sometimes slept over 3 even in the hospital where they told me to feed her every 3 hours minimum? Or maybe she needs those long stretches of sleep to digest her ample meals of (mostly pumped…oh no) breastmilk so she can turn it into, well, brain cells or something. Maybe evolution needs a mix of babies like mine and babies like I was (light sleeper well into toddlerhood) to keep the gene pool wide enough to survrve many challenges, and on-tap-milk-at-all-costs-to-mother is just a passing fad.

    • demodocus

      both mine were the same way. Boybard even surprised the nurses by sleeping some 4 hours in the wee hours on his 2nd night.

      • Sarah

        One of mine did a 5 hour stretch on the 2nd night! Shame it didn’t last…