There’s a piece making the rounds claiming that sleep training is a feminist issue. In a nutshell, the author argues that because women disproportionately handle night time care (and the associated sleeplessness), that we need to support sleep training (specifically extinction methods like cry-it-out and controlled crying) or we aren’t being our feminist selves. I disagree with this piece wholeheartedly for three main reasons which I’ll outline herein and I will even go a step further and say that sleep training is a feminist issue, but rather it’s the ending of these extinction methods that should be the focus of feminists, not endorsing them.
Reason #1: Oh… The Science
The author of this piece has to start with the (incorrect) notion that science overwhelmingly supports extinction sleep training and uses four main arguments to make her point:
First, that the Middlemiss study on synchrony and cortisol is useless and tells us nothing. I’m not going to be someone that claims the study tells us everything, far from it, but it was the first of its kind to even bother to look at physiology during extinction sleep training. The results are limited in that they cover a short period, there’s high individual variability, and they haven’t been replicated. That said, the results also provide a glimpse as to the potential for neurological harm and attachment via raised cortisol levels (even when a baby isn’t crying) and a loss of synchrony with the caregiver. Of course more needs to be done.
Furthermore, the author suggests that the Middlemiss study is the only piece of evidence that we have when we speak out against extinction sleep training. That’s patently false. All I can do is recommend you read up on the influence of the development of self-soothing in relationship to sleep training, the individual differences in the experience of trauma, and the relationships between cortisol, crying, and responsiveness. I will acknowledge that we have few answers when it comes to sleep training, but there are good reasons many scientists do not believe extinction sleep training is the panacea we’ve been led to believe it is.
Second, she puts a lot of stock into the Slate article written a couple years ago which tries to argue in favour of sleep training. Now, beyond the obvious problem that it’s a Slate article and not academic research (after all, are we really going to Slate for our feminist and scientific discourse?), I have already addressed the glaring problems in this particular article here. No point repeating myself.
Third, she specifically states that the research by Anna Price and colleagues, which claimed to find no long-term differences between infants sleep trained and those not, is solid evidence of no harm. The problem? This research has been so thoroughly debunked that Pediatrics (where it was published) received several published responses (my own including) pointing out the various flaws in the research. I have written up the problems on EP here and my response on Pediatrics can be seen here. In short, the researchers’ methods were such that they can’t say much of anything. They basically split people up, gave one group an intervention, the other not. Half of the intervention group didn’t do the intervention and we don’t know how many in the control group actually did the intervention on their own. Then they compared them based on the initial random split, not by those who actually did or did not use extinction sleep training. If you don’t see the problem, science isn’t for you (and apparently it’s not for a lot of proponents of extinction sleep training).
Finally, she argues that our current generation, most of whom experienced extinction sleep training, is evidence of no harm. If it were so harmful, we’d have seen the effects, right? Exactly. I don’t know what adults she hangs out with, but I have heard far too many adults speak of their sleep issues, their memories of trauma of being left, and of feeling helpless and alone. Not all of them, but enough of them. Add to that rising rates of childhood depression and anxiety and lower rates of attachment between caregiver and child and I think it’s fair to say we’re on a pretty bad path.
Reason #2: That Logical Fallacy
The author of the original piece frames things as follows: Women are suffering from nighttime parenting and extinction sleep training methods can help them, thus if you don’t support extinction sleep training methods, you’re not being a good feminist. Do you see the problem?
If you said, “Wait, where’s the in between? Isn’t there something that helps moms and isn’t extinction sleep training?” give yourself a big pat on the back because you are absolutely right. The logic simply doesn’t follow. To be against extinction sleep training does not inherently make one against women or even helping sleep deprived parents. In fact, those of us who speak out against extinction methods do so for some very valid family- and women- and child-centered reasons.
First, extinction sleep training erroneously focuses on a symptom, not a problem. Infant sleep is biological different from our own, but even when there are problems with infant sleep, they are almost never due to sleep per se. They reflect underlying feeding or health problems that are currently unidentified. By focusing on the sleep issue, and using non-responsiveness as a means to do it, the parents are ignoring the very real problems that may be there (or they are just woefully ignorant of infant sleep).
Second, even when sleep is normal, but problematic for a family, this mantra that extinction sleep training is what we have to support ignores that there are a wealth of other resources that offer sleep guidance, assistance, and support without placing the burden of such a change solely on the shoulders of the infant. You can read up on many of these methods in this post here because these are what most of us anti-extinction-sleep-training-methods promote when families need a chance. We don’t suggest everyone waits-it-out, we don’t dismiss the needs of the family, but we also don’t condone placing such a large burden on a child for whom we don’t what the long-term repercussions will be.
In short: Cut the crap that this is black and white. If you can’t be bothered to see that there are a million shades of gray in between then you are clearly not really concerning yourself with all relevant parties.
Reason #3: The Author Seems to Mistake “Feminist” for “Self-Serving Brat”
Luckily there were many comments on the original pointing out that the real argument being made by the author is more like: “Men aren’t doing their fair share of nighttime parenting so as a woman, I won’t do it either!” It reminds me of a whiny individual who isn’t getting his/her way and thus stomping feet and declaring that they will opt out too. Boo hoo for anyone else.
First, being a parent is about being a parent regardless of what others around you do. You don’t get to say that because your partner doesn’t feed your child, you won’t do it either. Male or female, you step up and do what needs to be done to care for your children. If you have a problem with your particular partner, talk to them about it, don’t whine that now you won’t do it either. If your partner doesn’t pay the bills, do you opt out of paying them altogether too? No, and you wouldn’t be able to use that as an excuse either.
Second, feminism isn’t about man versus woman. It really isn’t, and to frame this entire discussion as a man versus woman issue is disrespectful to everyone. It paints things as if men can’t stand up and be wonderful partners and fathers and as if women’s only recourse is to be just like them if they are being asses. Not to mention the poor child left in the middle of this playground fight. Feminism is about standing up to the patriarchal system that disrespects both males and females, especially those who want to care for their family. (I’ll get back to this below when talking about how sleep training really is a feminist issue.)
Is life fair? Not particularly. If a situation isn’t fair for you, do you then have the right to make it even more unfair for someone weaker than you? Not morally. Yet this is what you are arguing. You have turned “feminism” into something that only looks out for the best outcome for women, everyone else be damned. No real feminist thinks they are above everyone else – that’s a matriarchy, not feminism. If you want to be a feminist, care about all of those around you, especially those that are being disenfranchised by a system that doesn’t value the feminine, regardless of who does it, and the negative effects on our society by such a system. That doesn’t include being a whiny brat.
My Take: The End of Extinction Sleep Training is a Feminist Issue
Why do I say this? Let’s start with the premise that feminism is about standing up to patriarchal system or society. What is this system? It is one that only values traditionally masculine traits and behaviours while simultaneously diminishing anything feminine. It does not state that whatever men do is good and what women do is bad, quite the contrary. A man who wants to take part in a traditionally female role will face immense backlash in such a society, whereas a woman who takes on traditionally male roles will be lauded. Thus, it’s not about the sexes, it’s about the perception of masculine and feminine.
(One thing of note is that in some societies there is an overlap between valuing the masculine, and thus the male, and devaluing the feminine, and thus the female. Women are seen as being unable to even be masculine enough and face much greater hardship than we do in our society. They face extreme stigmatization and control by others, they lose any sense of autonomy and I am forever thankful we have at least moved beyond that. Our society has decided that so long as women act like our traditional men, they will be okay. It is a step up because we can argue for equal rights, but it is still a patriarchal society.)
In our society, the traditional male role is to work and help the economy. The traditional female role is to nurture our children. It is patently obvious how little value our society places on this traditional female role: We see it in low wages for jobs that traditionally involve care (childcare, education, nursing, to name a few) and in policies that all but make caring for family impossible for any parent (like a lack of appropriate parental leave and non-livable minimum wages). Sleep training, contrary to being feminist, is one method that fits very nicely into this patriarchal system.
Sleep training asks us to value the productivity of the daytime work for an employer (the masculine), not the work of raising the next generation. It requires us to see nighttime parenting (the feminine) as expendable and of no value. For if we put any value on nighttime parenting, then we simply can’t say the appropriate answer is to stop it altogether under the guise of femininsm. That plays right into the hands of patriarchy. We are saying our own role as parents (mother or fathers) is useless because nurturing isn’t something to be commended or lauded. It doesn’t mean changes don’t need to be made in family circumstances, but extinction sleep training is about saying your responsiveness and your nurturing mean nothing. Not only nothing, but they may be harming your child. That’s patriarchy folks. Changes that respect that role (and the many other roles we as parents hold) exist (as mentioned above) but not in extinction sleep training.
Furthermore, sleep training asks us to ignore the needs and realities of a weaker group – our children. That isn’t feminist. For ages, feminists have been fighting for those who are often overlooked in society because the basic premise of feminism is to view our inherent worth as equal. Not that we must all do the same thing, but that our worth as humans isn’t dictated by the masculine or feminine. Nor is it dictated by age. Putting the brunt of your problems on a child isn’t feminist because it’s using the same power and force we’re supposedly fighting against to subdue another group. How is that feminist?
The feminist answer to the sleep deprivation problem isn’t extinction sleep training. In fact, that’s a perpetuation of the problem. The answer is to fight for changes to a system that doesn’t value the traditional feminine act of nurturance (regardless of whether it is done by man or woman). Fight for parental leaves, fight for flexible work schedules, or just plain fight to have parenting recognized as the immeasurably valuable act that it is.
Just don’t diminish it even more by arguing that it’s irrelevant because that’s not feminism. That’s anti-feminism.
Some of those gentle books (click on the image below to be taken to your local Amazon who provides a small percentage of each sale through these links to EP):
 Middlemiss W, Granger DA, Goldberg WA, Nathans L. Asynchrony of mother-infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early Human Development 2012; 88: 227-32.
 Price AMH, Wake M, Okoumunne OC, Hiscock H. Five-year follow-up of harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep intervention: randomized trial. Pediatrics 2012; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-3467.