Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The feminist clarifies

I received a few different private responses from various people who read my post about questioning the hegemony behind the the labeling of "unsafe" to the practice of co-sleeping. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the responses were predominantly from men. One thought I was unfair and another thought the post was great. I'm not sure if different people read things differently, if they're at other places in their lives, or whatever, but I thought that maybe my previous post deserved a little bit of clarification.

My allusion to a male hegemony that exists was a critique of Western philosophy, pediatrics, and parenting practices--not a critique of all males. Certainly there are a great many men who believe in gentle parenting, who would lovingly put the needs of their wives and children far above there own, and who are supportive of alternative ways of doing things. In fact, I will even entertain the thought that most men would be okay with co-sleeping, even if their wives wouldn't.

My post was mainly critiquing what I believe to be a shift in parenting practice that certainly seems to favor a male-dominated society's priorities and outlooks. While, at least to my knowledge, there is no publication regarding the overall history of parenting practices throughout time (such a publication would be monstrous, and would likely, as most history textbooks do, give a one-sided account). But here's what I've been able to ascertain through the reading of a number of parenting books and articles that address such a topic.

It is quite clear that the extended family was replaced by the nuclear family during the Industrial Revolution as families left the farms and communities of their extended family and headed for single family dwellings in the cities. At the same time, women began to leave the home to work in factories rather than being at home with their children. This naturally led to a stark change in who and what was the authority on parenting because unlike today, they couldn't simply call up mom or grandma to get advice. No longer were mothers and grandmothers sharing their knowledge of breastfeeding and childrearing, and so doctors became the voice of authority. As a result, at least as far as I can see, the opportunity arose for doctor's personal preferences (all of whom were male at the time) to override the longstanding traditions of pre-Industrial Europe and America. Also, as is only natural, male doctors could not offer help to breastfeeding mothers because they simply had never breastfed themselves (something to consider even today when male doctors/authors give breastfeeding advice).

Since a woman's body naturally produces milk and other animals naturally nurse their young, at least in my mind, it's not hard to see that there was a bit of conflict over ownership of the woman's body and a confusion regarding proper breastfeeding techniques and information, that led to the move toward infant formula rather than the mother nursing the baby herself. With the decline of breastfeeding naturally came the decline of co-sleeping (and the introduction of "sleep training"...but we won't get into that). Since one would have to get out of bed to make a bottle rather than simply attach the child to the breast, it was no longer natural for a woman to bring the child to bed with her.

I don't blame men, or even the authors I stated in my previous post, for perpetuating incorrect information about breastfeeding and scaring families away from co-sleeping. I just think that in large part they're not considering the differences in safety between a breastfeeding mother and fathers, grandparents, siblings,etc. who could sleep next to a small baby. One of the main rules for safe co-sleeping is that only the breastfeeding mother should be sleeping next to the infant. This is the only person who is in tune enough with her baby to prevent "overlaying." (There are a number of other precautions which should be taken and are necessary for safe co-sleeping.)

In the end, I don't think families who choose not to co-sleep are being unsafe. Rather, I believe that the incorrect labeling of co-sleeping as being unsafe needs to be removed. I do believe that until the male authors who have staked themselves as the"authority" on infant care change their instructions, mothers will continue to believe them. I wish this were not the case. I wish mothers and all women felt empowered enough to turn to other women, other mothers, before needing to rely on "experts," But, in our male-dominated society, that just isn't the case. I believe it is changing though and I continue to hope in a society that will return to what it once was--mothers learning from their mothers and fathers learning from their fathers, and each respecting one another in their respective roles (whatever those roles happen to be for their own family). I would also like to see doctors maintaining their roles as educators of child development and those who treat sick children rather than the experts on parenting practices.


  1. I don't believe that co-sleeping is unsafe, and I don't think that sleep training is unsafe either. We do sleep training, as appropriate for the age, and it works great for us, and our kids. I cannot sleep with a baby, so I don't. I think we often forget that there is no greater authority than the mom for a baby and the decisions made. We have instincts and should use them.

  2. Okay, well, here is a comment from a woman. I don't co-sleep, because I am such a deep sleeper that even though I'm supposed to be "in tune" with the baby as the breastfeeding mother, I am really afraid that I would roll onto the baby. I feel like he is a lot safer in his cradle. I also don't think preserving privacy for intimacy = husband "claiming" my body. I happen to enjoy it, too, and think it's just as valuable and important for our marriage as he does. And I don't really want the baby around for that.

    Also, I wanted to point out that, though I'm sure that co-sleeping has been around for thousands of years, so have cradles... I mean, Mary and Joseph put Jesus in the manger.

  3. I cannot stop laughing about the manger comment. So hilarious.

  4. Ok. This is fair. I LOVED your original "feminist" post, and almost left a comment to the effect of "down with the patriarchy!" and I also almost flew to Calgary to burn some bras with you. But I do appreciate how this further explanation takes the blame away from "men", or individual male doctors and places it more generally on the direction of society and the development of the modern world. This is having a good moderating influence on the up-start reactions of my recent late-bloomer feminist tendencies. :)