“Whatever you are doing, however you are coping, if you listen to your child and to your own feelings, there will be something you can actually do to put things right or make the best of those that are wrong.”
While most people can probably agree with this statement from author Penelope Leach, her work on infant and baby care has been generating controversy for years. In a 1994 article in The Independent, she is referred to as both the “scourge of the guilty middle-class parent” and “Britain’s leading authority on child care”.
The Path to Authority
After graduating with honors from Newnham College in 1959, she earned her PhD in psychology from the London School of Economics in 1964. In addition to having held several prestigious positions in her field, she founded more than one organization herself, including The Association of Infant Mental Health and EPOCH, (End Physical Punishment of Children). Her philosophy regarding infant and baby care during and after divorce became a source of continuing public controversy. Leach, a child of divorce herself, became a passionate champion of infant and baby care and children’s rights, which many believed usurped parental authority.
Despite criticism, her steadfast belief that corporal punishment was detrimental to children’s mental and emotional health and development has since been supported by a number of scientific studies and is widely accepted as fact by nearly all infant and baby care experts today.
One of her primary goals was to reduce the degree of emotional suffering children experience through divorce by stressing the importance of parents recognizing their human rights throughout the process.
Influence on Infant and Baby Care Practices
The 2010 edition of her best-selling book on infant and baby care care, Your Baby and Child, originally published in 1977, is still selling today. In addition to proving it has staying power, it has also been translated into 28 languages, and millions of copies have been sold all over the world. Its popularity resulted in an award-winning cable television series of the same name, which she wrote and hosted.
Her stance has been described as “child-centered feminism“by Robert Manne, in that she recognized and acknowledged the difficulties women face when trying to combine motherhood with a career. However, her opinion that child, infant and baby care provided by family members was superior to that of paid professionals in a day care setting proved to be unpopular with working mothers, many of whom did not have the luxury of making that choice. Many feminists believed that her views hurt the cause of equal rights for women by inducing guilt in working mothers.
Child, Infant and Baby care and …. Fathers
Another area of controversy surrounding her book was the role of fathers in child, infant and baby care. She stressed the importance of the role of the primary care-giver, most often the mother. Her 2014 book, “Family Breakdown” received a great deal of criticism due to her claim that there was “undisputed evidence” that sleepovers with those not the child’s primary caregiver, including divorced fathers, could cause emotional damage in comparisons to regular nuclear families.
It was so controversial that a report disputing it, written by Professors Richard Warshak and Linda Nielsen and endorsed by 110 child care specialists, was published in the journal “Psychology, Public Policy and Law”.
In a recent article in the Guardian in which she is interviewed about “Family Breakdown” and the impact on infant and baby care, she answers critics who believe she doesn’t recognize the equal importance of fathers by saying:
“In the vast majority of cases, it’s the mother who is the primary attachment figure: young babies need a primary caregiver and being separated from that figure can cause them problems. If a father was the primary caregiver, I’d say the baby shouldn’t be staying overnight with the mother. But I believe fathers are just as important to a child’s life as mothers, though the timing is different. They tend to come into their own in the second year, rather than at birth, and children who have a close relationship with their fathers do better through life in every way.”
Her current research at the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at the University of London reveals her continued dedication and commitment to replacing opinions with scientific evidence. She recently authored a chapter of the “Handbook of Child Wellbeing” entitled “Infant Rearing in the Context of Contemporary Neuroscience” and continues to serve as a visiting professor at the University of Winchester.
The ever-increasing number of post-divorce parents and their specific concerns for their children’s well-being is just one of the reasons for the continued popularity of her books on child, infant and baby care. Her strong advocacy for children’s rights is another.
Despite her critics, given the most recent divorce statistics and the fact that parents continue to be parents after divorce, her research will continue to be present for a long time to come.