June 2020. America is currently teetering on the edge. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that it could disintegrate into civil war. It’s day 9 of mass protests, and the national guard, FBI and riot police are all out in force. The race riots of the 60’s look like a warm up compared to protests across all 50 states, as well as many countries overseas. Here in Australia many of us are reckoning with our own wake up calls to the ongoing police brutality and persecution of Indigenous Australians.
The sheer scale of the outcry to George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police has sparked awareness of the need to speak up in many places, both likely and unlikely. Over at The Beyond Sleep Training Project, they’re one of many parenting pages sharing content related to anti-racism, white privilege, and the need to speak up. Predictably there’s been a few comments from people claiming that sharing such content isn’t relevant to the page. (Newsflash, what’s relevant to any page is what the page creators feel is relevant.) But here’s the thing, TBSTP isn’t just any parenting page; it’s an anti-sleep-training page. Why is that relevant? Because Sleep Training is a tool for racism.
(Cue outrage and denial)
Still with me? Here’s 4 ways Sleep Training is racist.
60% of the world's population share a sleep space with their kids. Shared Sleep is the norm in developing countries like Cote De Ivory*, technological powerhouses like Japan and “mostly western” countries like Sweden. It’s only in Western countries, and only in the last 120ish years that the idea of babies sleeping independently is considered the holy grail of parenting. But when you grow up saturated in that belief system, and seeing nothing else, you’re hard pressed to realise it.
Example 1: Paediatric Research
Most of the worlds research is done by westerners on WEIRD (western, educated, industrial, rich, developed) countries. Paediatric health research is no different. The number of truly cross-cultural studies into infant and child development is astonishingly low. What does exist, is predominantly the work of anthropologists, and their findings are rarely (if ever) taken into account by those in other fields. If you run a search in google scholar for infant sleep problems you get 680 500 results, add the word cultural and the results drop to 243 000. That leaves 437 500 journal articles that don’t even mention cultural differences, essentially ⅔ of the literature. With ⅔ of the (English) literature blind to perspectives outside the researchers own culturally influenced bubble, there’s more than enough biased material for hospitals, and health boards; full of their own biases (and underrepresented by BIPOC) to use to give academic credence to their cultural assumptions about how and where children should sleep.
If you look into the history of sleep training it quickly becomes apparent that those assumptions are based on nothing more than the works of a couple of prominent white doctors in the 1800’s (who didn’t even study their claims well enough to determine they were applicable across all middle class white kids, let alone any other demographic,) backed up by 120 years of British/American exceptionalism and retroactive attempts to legitimise the claims via research that sets out to prove the researchers assumptions. Which is why there is so much literature claiming that night waking, feeding to sleep, rocking to sleep or otherwise requiring parental presence are problematic and behavioral.
The whole concept of independent baby sleep relies on Behaviourist theory to justify its existence. Logic tells us that when you take a baby mammal out of it’s expected environment, of course they’re going to get distressed and of course parental response is going to soothe them. But sleep training culture comes out of the myths of babies sleeping happily in their own rooms, in a cot, through the night, with no interference or support. If that can’t be fixed with behavioral tactics, then we might have to acknowledge the fact that such a setup is inherently bizarre socio-culturally and maybe our western beliefs are flawed. So behavioural modification it is.
The claim that babies should sleep independently came about at the same time that science also claimed that black people were less evolved, but whilst that theory has been re-examined There hasn’t been a mass re-look at the legitimacy of the underlying arguments behind the “need” for independent baby sleep. It’s just assumed to be an unquestionable fact that babies sleep independently, and any who do not have been taught “bad habits” by their parents which must be corrected with behavioural training.
Sleep training’s development is steeped in the classism, racism, sexism and colonialist ambitions of the industrial era. Those issues have never been redressed.
Example 2: Mental Health Classifications & their treatment.
Did you know that the DSM5 lists paediatric behavioural insomnia as a “disorder, (in which) the infant or child has learned to fall asleep only under certain conditions or has specific sleep associations that typically require parental intervention, such as being rocked or fed, which are usually readily available at bedtime.”
The ‘cure’ for this so called disorder is “systemic ignoring” an academic term for Sleep Training, including full extinction (cry it out), and graduated extinction (controlled crying/responsive settling).
The DSM5 estimates that 20-30% of infants, toddlers and young children have this ‘disorder’. That’s 20-30% of American children btw. But if the people who wrote the DSM5 expanded their lens worldwide would they consider that the 60% of children in the world who sleep with a parent have a mental health disorder too? Since parental responsiveness and things like rocking or feeding to sleep are considered the cause of this ‘disorder’ you would have to assume that yes, the DSM would consider 60% of the world’s parents to be causing their children a mental health disorder by not sleep training.
That’s pretty obviously colonialism at its most egotistical.
Example 3: Government backing of Sleep Training
Back in Australia we have government funded inpatient programs for maternal mental health whose primary treatment method is to Sleep Train the baby. National discussion or recognition of the cultural conflicts that presents to Indigenous, Maori, Pacific Islander and Immigrant mothers is non-existent.
There’s two levels of these services, those for mums who are battling psychosis, suicidal depression and other serious mental health issues, and ones for anyone who is having “difficulties” with sleep and settling. Parents are referred to these services by gp’s, maternal child health nurses and paediatricians for reasons such as the 4 month old is waking an average of 5 times a night. Pressure from health professionals for your baby to be sleeping independently and through the night without rocking or feeding to sleep is enormous. Melbourne alone has at least five regular sleep schools, plus their mental health MBU services. My friend Danielle calls it the sleep school capital of Australia. Pretty much every mother she knows has been; it’s considered a right of passage.
But research from the UK and USA into bed sharing rates amongst immigrant populations show that even In families who’ve been there for multiple generations the practices of their homeland hold their values. So in Melbourne, the most diverse city in Australia, you are absolutely going to have mothers every single day being pressured or outright told by their health providers, and government literature that their cultural practices of nurturing their children to sleep are wrong, will create problems and must be nipped in the bud, and treated with sleep training, a concept that doesn’t even exist outside the western world.
White saviours converting the uneducated savages much?
Example 4: Pushing Seep Training into new markets.
In much the same way the formula industry moved in on developing countries in the 80’s pushing formula onto the poor with claims of its superiority, the sleep training industry is doing the same. The push to sleep train is becoming more and more prevalent across Eastern Europe, South America and Asia. Iin countries where 10 years ago nobody knew the concept, parenting magazines are now touting the wonders of sleep training and parents are falling for it. Especially in markets where anything Western is seen as automatically better or aspirational.
2oo years ago colonialism looked like the British declaring the Indigenous Australians “fauna” and the country Terra Nullius because they didn’t farm or build houses and societies in a way that the Brits recognised. Today it looks like convincing other cultures that their practices are wrong, and western ones are to be idealised, based on nothing more than western bias and the prospect of untapped markets.
It’s corporate colonialism.
The formula industry has been receiving pushback for these tactics for decades, in fact there’s even a international code of conduct for formula advertising in an attempt to stop this corporate colonialism, but sleep training is the new frontier, and it doesn’t come with heartbreaking pictures of starving babies that might negatively impact the ability to “spread the good news” and convert people.
Sleep Training Culture relies on continuing to perpetuate the belief that babies “should” sleep alone; regardless of the fact that less than 20% of the world’s babies do so. At least in the Australian government developed parenting booklets and websites, if bedsharing is mentioned at all the subtext tends to be that it’s either some “quaint” thing “ethnic” families who “have yet to fully assimilate do”. Or a “dangerous” practice “ignorant” Indigenous parents do out of either a lack of education, or because they’re “too drunk, high and poor” to be good parents. (I had an LC tell me once that SIDS rates were higher in indigenous communities because “the aboriginals just won’t stop sleeping with their babies.”) Whilst the government literature doesn’t directly encourage sleep training in their recommendations to Indigenous families, it still pushes the baby must sleep alone message. And what happens when a baby won’t sleep alone? Healthcare workers and government resources all point to sleep training as the answer.
Whilst sleep training doesn’t come with the obvious racial injustices of birth, or the clearly mapped history of oppressing black women like midwifery & wetnursing, It’s pretty clear to me that sleep training culture has a lot of racist undertones . It's just another example of how parenting is always political.
*edit. This used to read Bostwana, however as a friend pointed out, whilst Bostwana is still on the list of developing countries I referenced (from 2018) Bostwana is now considered a middle-income country.
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