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The feminist politics of baby sleep

In this excerpt from Sleeping Like A Baby, the authors say shifting priorities by both parents has a magical effect on your child’s well being

We believe that being aware and respectful of a child’s developmental needs is important and not inferior to our career concerns, the authors write. (Photo by Simon Berger from Pexels)

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As pro-choice feminists, we have often been baffled by the suggestion that, to be a good feminist, you absolutely must put your own needs before your child’s. We often hear that for women who leave the home to work, children’s needs are inconvenient and must be clipped in order to serve a larger feminist purpose. There is also the suggestion that stay-at-home parents can deal better with night wakings than parents who have to step out to do paid work.

In our collective experience of having done it all at different points—stepping out to an office to work, working from home, taking time off paid work—we found that children’s biological impulses remain the same, no matter your career choices. Though the larger gender debate on the unfair burden of caregiving on women has demanded the male parent step up, in practice, the onus often falls on children to realign their needs and the co-parent simply does not go the distance. At any given point in time during the first five years of your child’s life, shifting priorities by both parents has a magical effect on your child’s well being. What those shifting priorities look like … is a decision that must be taken by every parent and every family in the way that works best for them, but children’s basic rights should be kept in mind.

We believe that being aware and respectful of a child’s developmental needs is important and not inferior to our career concerns. Parenting is never a one-track journey and phases come and go. By investing time and energy in the first few years—again, by both parents or multiple caregivers—into your baby’s sleep does not translate to you giving up your whole life to raise children. Children, whether you like it or not, do become hugely independent on their own, allowing your career to organically become stronger, deeper and more fulfilling as they grow.

There is a historical context to our argument. The idea of feeding infant formula as a regular practice and sleep training gained traction during the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Increasingly, there has been a philosophy in the decades that followed that women need to fulfill their professional destinies, be financially independent, and not be shackled to home and hearth. While this has led to a fair amount of social justice and progress for women, things have come almost full circle on motherhood in particular. Women born into a relatively freer world have, in fact, felt the oppression of the pressure to ‘have it all’.

With increasing research on the harmful effects of sleep training and the benefits of following biological norms, mothers (and indeed fathers) have tuned into their biological instincts and found it to be at odds with what society is asking them to do with their babies. Sleep training, early weaning from the breast, early separation into institutionalized childcare, negative discipline aimed at fostering early and unnatural independence have begun to feel dissonant to many parents. In this scenario, parents who choose to follow the biologically normal approach, which may include one or both parents prioritizing childcare over careers, often face censure over their seemingly ‘antifeminist’ choices.

Sleeping Like a Baby: The Art & Science of Gentle Baby Sleep: Penguin Random House India, 288 Pages,   <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>299
Sleeping Like a Baby: The Art & Science of Gentle Baby Sleep: Penguin Random House India, 288 Pages,   299

The fact is, the way in which social and economic structures currently exist make it difficult for parents to meet the biological needs of their infants. Extended paternity and maternity leave, flexible work arrangements, creches within offices, increased normalization of breastfeeding in public, easier options for mums or dads to return to work after a break would support parents to provide the kind of hands-on, connection-based care that young babies really need. Even so, a mother following her instincts and choosing to nurture a baby for a while before returning to the workforce is in fact exercising a choice. Making choices intricately linked to a woman’s body in a world built by men is never easy.

Whose Right Is It Anyway?

Another burning issue to address is the complex subject of childism. Childism is essentially holding prejudice against children, treating them like we own them and like they must be told what to do, while disrespecting their needs, choices and natural instincts. It can be as simple as dismissing a baby’s request to be held or forcing a child to eat when she makes it clear she is not hungry.

Cumulatively, when we think about how much we hold against children across the world—that they are manipulative, they demand too much attention, they are needy and clingy and need to be scolded or spanked to instil discipline, and so on and so forth—we find that it is an entire culture built to think the worst of them. Truthfully, children come into the world absolutely perfectly equipped with all the tools they need to grow. It’s all pretty much in-built and will sprout at the age it is meant to, given the right conditions and care.

They need our support, guidance and deep attachment and security. It’s their right to lead the way, to give us cues on what they need and how they feel. Setting boundaries for their safety and helping them understand right from wrong is our job too; however, this can be done in a respectful way without trampling on their feelings so that the relationship and growth is a collaboration rather than a power struggle, which parenting too often curdles into.

Childism is no less offensive and problematic than sexism, racism and outright child abuse. The difference is that childism, slightly more general in nature, can be almost impossible to identify for most parents because it is so ingrained in how we interact not just with our own children but children in general. Not many know it exists. But becoming aware is the first step to rearranging the power equation between our children and all of us, the adults around them, in a way that they do not feel subjugated and treated as lesser than grown people.

How is this connected to sleep? Sleep is not an isolated activity; it ties in with everything we do and experience during the day. In order to align your child’s sleep habits with biological needs, we need to, at every point, advocate for our children. Parenting can frequently be so overwhelming that often our own needs as adults are not met, and when we are hurting and stressed out and feeling frustrated with the clash between reality and expectations, it is hard to see things from the point of view of your children. We have been there too. Seeing it from a distance now, we want to do our bit to restore that balance in your home, if we can.

Excerpted with permission from Sleeping Like A Baby: The Art and Science of Gentle Baby Sleep by Himani Dalmia and Neha Bhatt, published by Penguin Random House India

    09.01.2022 | 10:30 AM IST

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