Penelope Leach’s views on overnights with dad are absurd and wrong

17 June 2014

Adrienne Burgess writes:

The Fatherhood Institute, a charity established in 1999, does not fight for the rights of separated dads. We have no membership and our brief is wide. We facilitate Fathers’ Story Week to which hundreds of schools and nurseries sign up every year. We work with child protection teams to help prevent child abuse and deaths (Osborn, 2014). We produce user-friendly summaries of research about fathers and fatherhood. We advocate for dads staying overnight after the birth to help their partner when overstretched maternity wards struggle to meet her needs.

Our activities are widely respected because we don’t make wild claims. Not so, it seems former parenting guru, Penelope Leach, who came out yesterday with the quite absurd idea that no child under four can spend even one night away from their mother without the possibility that this will ‘cause lasting damage’.

Ms Leach’s evidence? A single study from Australia (McIntosh et al, 2010). The problem for Ms Leach, however is that that the findings and methodology of the Australian (‘McIntosh’) study have been discredited (read more in our blog from March 2014); and other studies from around the world have shown no ill-effects among very young children in separated families who stay overnight with ‘the other parent’ (Warshak, 2014; Nielsen, 2014; Cashmore & Parkinson, 2012).

Possibly even more problematic for Ms Leach, is that McIntosh herself has backed off from this position (in fact, she now says she never held it) and is currently urging experts to ‘resist the urge to prescribe fixed formulas about numbers of overnights or age of commencement’ (McIntosh, Pruett & Kelly, 2014).

So will our Family Court now fall on its knees before Ms Leach and rule against all dad-overnights for young children? No – because her claim is so patently absurd, and out-of-step with lived experience.

Some years ago when the Fatherhood Institute was invited to work with Family Court judges, they discussed whether a young child could safely spend a night away from mum. One ventured that perhaps any overnight ‘would be a bad thing’. Another said ‘it depends’. A third laughed out loud: ‘my grandchildren regularly stay overnight with me and have done since they were babies!’

Clearly both the Family Court and parents need guidelines that protect the vulnerabilities of early childhood while also supporting life-long parent-child relationships. Such guidelines are common in other jurisdictions, and in fact are set out by McIntosh herself, in her recent (2014) paper with Pruett and Kelly.

Ms Leach’s commentary must not hold sway; rather, let the evidence speak.

On which note, we give – for now – a father quoted in that paper the last word:

“Our son is nearly three. We separated shortly after he was born, and had court orders for increasing overnights, which would have led to 50/50 by the time he was two. He started to stay overnights with me when he turned one but was clearly distressed with the separations. I couldn’t have him be distressed. I chose (despite friends believing otherwise) to work with his desires and wants. So we discontinued the overnights for awhile. He was always happy with me in the day including being put to bed for his day time sleep, and we kept that going, and brought the nights back slowly. Over time, through his own volition he became comfortable with staying overnight. Now, he will just state (for the record!) that he will be staying ‘all night’ with me and that’s it. Sometimes, after this declaration he might back track a little but by then I just reassure his doubts and we move on and he is happy, and sleeps soundly. He often now wants to stay on longer with me and transition times are joyfully undertaken. We are on a roll. So, needless to say I’m happy with the decision to allow him to come to this in his own time.”



Cashmore, J., & Parkinson, P. (2012). Parenting arrangements for young children: messages from research. Australian Journal of Family Law, 25(3), 236-257
Osborn, M.O.. (2014). Working with fathers to safeguard children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 38, 993–1001
McIntosh, J., Pruett, M.K., & Kelly, J. (2014). Parental separation and overnight care of young children, Part 2, putting theory into practice. Family Court Review, 52(2), 256-252
McIntosh, J., Smyth, B., Kelaher, M., & Wells, Y. L. C. (2010). Postseparation parenting arrangements: outcomes for infants and children. Sydney: Australian Attorney General’s Office
Nielsen, L. (2014). Woozles: their role in custody law reform, parenting plans, and family court. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law., 20(2), 64-180
Warshak, R.A. (2014). Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 20(1), 46–67


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  • With the greatest respect, I do not think you have read the section of the book about overnights carefully enough. The chapter on the subject of overnights does not say categorically that overnights with under fours cause issues in the way you suggest. What Penelope does say in a long and very carefully argued section (p.22 et sequi) is that a baby should not be shuttled between parents because they see it as their ‘right’, and that babies and toddlers must be treated with great care to ensure that overnights are not harmful. She specifically says that overnights with carers who have already an established pattern of caring with a baby or toddler should be considered. It is rather sad, in my view, that you focus negatively on this on this one section of the book at the expense of ignoring the wealth of advice that stresses throughout the book that fathers are and must always be an essential part of a child’s life.

    • Paul Archer says:

      Dear David,

      I have not read the book, but in what little you quoted does seem very fair. the important point you make here is “It is rather sad, in my view, that you focus negatively” I am pretty sure this is what most people would have done whether they agree what the topic or not.

      the important fact to consider after this, is authors should not be favouring one parent over anther at any point in the child’s life. as already proven things are taken a lot out of content and I’m sure many women and courts workers will not take the time to read the book but agree with the article in the papers without given the rest of the book a second look.

      my opinion on it would be, what about when a mother uses this as a way to blackmail a father…”you can see your child if…” “I’m going out for the night, can you have the child for the night” when is it ok and when is it not ok? it is also worth considering women that are more likely to want to enforce this “agreement” are ones that will later go on to parentally alienate the child from the father.

      How does Mrs Leach address, keeping the balance of starting to introduce shared parenting after the child is 4 and preventing an instinctive alienation because a normal relationship of parent and child has not been possible? i.e… “I’ve done the night feeds, I’ve done all settling them for bed, I’m the one that has had to get out of bed for the last for years to settle and help them to the toilet, now you want to take them away from me….”

      one other very important thing to consider is, what if the mother starts a new relationship? does that mean her new partner cannot help any part in settling a child to bed? what about mums that go into hospital for week/months for whatever reason? What about a father that help with the first 2,3…. Kids, now the last child doesn’t get the same treatment? The child will later grow to be resentful.

      As equal as the book might be regarding parenting, how helpful is that one comment to what many fathers are fighting for? This is just more ammo for the mother that make contact already imposable.



  • Gill Haynes says:

    I think this is a very disappointing blog. For an organisation that bills itself as non-campaigning and non-partisan, it reads more like a peeved polemic that a balanced response. It would have been easy and helpful for the Institute to add a measured voice to what is a vital, and, yes contested, area of academic research. Instead, the blog resorts to personal jibe and criticism. It suggests that even having received, through courtesy, an advance copy of the book, it appears you haven’t read it. If you had, you would have recognised that the case study you cite at the end of the blog precisely fits Dr Leach’s description of ‘mutual parenting’ which is at the heart of her book ‘Family Breakdown: helping children hang on to both their parents’.

    • Fatherhood Institute says:

      Adrienne Burgess replies to both previous commenters:

      We’re sorry but we have not misrepresented Ms.Leach’s views. Here are the direct quotes from her book – with our italics:

      • ‘And when a lawyer bids for his client to have his baby or toddler to stay overnight each weekend they are both ignoring clear evidence that such overnight separations from the mother are not only usually distressing, but also potentially damaging to the brain development and secure attachment of children under about four.

      • ‘Findings strongly suggest that shared care that includes spending nights, or even a single night at a time, away from ‘home’ and mother is seldom in the best interests of children under around four years of age.’

      • ‘Of course not every child under four who spends some nights away from her mother will show ill-effects, but unless the mother is actually incapable of caring for the child full-time so that the only alternative is extended family or foster care, it is doubtful whether any child in this age group will actually benefit from spending some nights with one parent and some with the other.’

      • ‘A three- or four-month-old baby may not be obviously distressed by separation from mother into father’s care as her attachment to mother is not yet fully formed and exclusive. However, while such a young baby may not be visibly upset there is a serious risk that frequent separations will disrupt her primary attachment to her mother and its security.

      Ms Leach reinforces these opinions (they are not FACTS, are heavily contested and are not born out in the vast majority of studies internationally) with an equally explicit, and misleading, narrative concerning the development of ‘attachment’:

      At a later point, the 2nd year, the child will bond to the father if he is also providing regular care’.

      In fact, a wealth of research now demonstrates that infants form multiple attachments simultaneously, each of which can have positive or negative impact on the child. Attachments to the father do not ‘wait’ to be formed until the second year.

      After all this heavy maternalism Ms Leach relents. She says::

      • ‘If the child is securely attached to both parents and readily turns to each of you for comfort, then she should be able to switch between you relatively easily.’

      This small sentence, however, vanishes beneath the weight of ‘evidence’ that Ms Leach piles onto motherhood.

  • Matt Little says:

    I’ve not read the book. All I have to go on is what I’ve read here (FI have done a good job at referencing everything they quote).

    I don’t like the term, ‘attachment parenting’. It implies that the mother is more important in the development of a child. My wife and I have an 18m old son who is strongly attached to both of us. Currently we both work 3 days a week and look after him 2 days each – and his grandma also regularly looks after him on a Friday when we are both at work. In the advice of ‘attachment parenting’ advocates I should have left my wife and him to form the primary attachment, gone off to work full time and come back into play in about 6 months’ time from now. I believe this approach would have been more harmful to our son, and in any case through his own choices he has made it abundantly clear that he wants a strong attachment to mummy, daddy, grandma and a bunch of others! But then we are not really the kind of family the book is written for or about, as my wife and I have our own strong attachment too.

    Re: separated parents, I think it’s just common sense that a legal decision about parents’ rights is a pretty poor reason to make a child (of any age) stay overnight away from home, if (s)he hasn’t bonded strongly enough with the cater in question. Such parents are thinking about their own needs to be seen as a great parent rather than the needs of the child. That’s just selfishness, and it doesn’t take a piece of research (however bad or good) to conclude that it would probably be harmful to the child.

    So it does come down to how well bonded the child is to the dad if the parents are separated. However, in the light of the statements from the book quoted by FI in the comments, it does seem that Leach’s suggestion that ‘overnights with Carers who have already established a pattern of caring…’ are thoroughly inconsistent and insincere. She believes that fathers are effectively useless anyway until the second year, so why don’t we all leave the mothers to it for the first year? Hang on, it’s because that’s what plenty of fathers from the past have done and ended up damaging their kids a whole lot more in the process.

  • Talat Sajawal says:

    How this women is an expert, I do not know. I think she has made this claim to gain publicity for her new book. It’s an old way of selling books ask Jeramy Clarkson he’s another expert at this. Children need both parents throughout their lives, so they have an secure attachment with both.
    Every child has their own relationship with each parent, the earlier this is developed the better for the child. Otherwise the child will grow up confused which would lead to major problems with behaviuor and attainment at school.

  • According to Machiavelli it is the hardest thing in the world to overturn the status quo. I am the author of ‘even Toddlers Need Fathers’ which Professor Sir Michael Rutter described as an ‘interesting and informative guide’. I mention his name because it is relevant. He is responsible for the seminal work ‘Maternal Deprivation Reassessed’ which took a comprehensive look at this subject. He makes the point that it is the sensitivity of the parent NOT the gender that makes a difference to children. This was the crucial point missed by Penelope Leach. She based her conclusions on the guidelines produced by Jenn McIntosh PhD in Australia. At the time of these guidelines I contacted the Australian Attorney General to complain that she in turn had based her work on Dr John Bowlby discredited theory of Maternal Deprivation. (You can see the correspondence on my facebook page). Subsequently Prof Michael Lamb also criticised Dr McIntosh in A WASTED OPPORTUNITY TO ENGAGE WITH THE LITERATURE ON THE IMPLICATIONS OF ATTACHMENT RESEARCH FOR FAMILY COURT PROFESSIONALS. Penelope Leach received her ideas about attachment from the Tavistock Clinic where Dr John Bowlby worked. Of course shuttling children around aimlessly is not good for them. That much is obvious. But despite the media reports in this country Shared Parenting legislation has been working well in Australia since 2006 and I believe critics of Adrienne Burgess have made the same mistake as Jenn McIntosh and Penelope Leach and failed to engage with the current up-to-date literature on the implications of attachment research for family courts.

  • nongenderbias9 says:

    Well said Adrienne. I think you have covered all the relevant points. What seems to be so aggreviously missing is respect for the child’s relationship to all those concerned. That is; the mother and all her family and the father and all his family. Like you say a child will form an attachment to any caring person (male or female) and that person will bond with the child. The father will have a deeply meaningful and personal relationship with his child; society needs to support and respect this.

    We need to let these positive attachment/bonds happen and support both parents to parent effectively and to stop arguing with each other. Instead of proposing family divisions to alleviate conflict (with usually the mother taking charge of the children) we need to educate parents in better parenting and conflict resolution techniques. At the same time it is vitally important that Dad gets to play his natural role as a father. Best for chidren, best for fathers, best for mothers and healthier for society.

    Kind regards

  • I’ve now read the book and would echo Ruth Langford’s review on our own blog. Language used about family law harks back to pre-1989 Children Act and other aspects of the book are misleading (see our own blog piece). Leach’s book is badly researched, and frankly defending this piece, given that criticism is accurate, is doing great damage to Mindful Policy Group.

    People make mistakes. Best admitted, and move on. There are flaws in the research. There are flaws in the conclusions. There are flaws in the comments related to family law. Some of it’s ok too… but really not good enough given MPG’s stated aims.

    I’m not ‘opposed to MPG’ or any other group. We’ve worked with most of them. Melanie Gill has done some good work in the past, which makes me even more surprised she’d give a 5* review to a book which simply fails. Same with Coleridge’s endorsement when he should have spotted that the book doesn’t recognise the changes in legal terminology which occurred 2 months before publication.

    The reliance on the McIntosh research is fairly and extensively criticised by others. I must also say that while saddened to see personal comments on Mrs Leach’s past in Amazon reviews (unnecessary and please don’t), I was equally saddened to see directors of MPG seemingly giving the book 5* reviews without declaring that the group had financial interests in the publication. It appears that Melanie, in fairness, was the only one of three directors who’d done this (when I last looked). I did copy in MPG on a tweet (three days ago) querying whether Colin Maginn and Phil Shepherd were the same as those giving reviews on Amazon but no reply. No problem with friends and family supporting an author, but the financial interest, to my mind, brings a line which shouldn’t be crossed (at least not without transparency).

    If you want to advise Government and shape family law, I would hope for and expect far higher standards. I think there’s been considerable reputational damage through association with this book which is only compounded by defense rather than critical analysis of the fair criticisms made.

    • Just to clarify. Melanie Gill was the only one of three directors to say she was with the Mindful Policy Group and not seemingly putting herself forward as just your average Joe Public. That said, again disappointed by her failure to mention that her group receives proceeds from book sales while giving a 5* rating.

      Just for information, and taken from the Advertising Standard’s Authority guidance “02 Recognition of marketing communications”…

      “2.3 Marketing communications must not falsely claim or imply that the marketer is acting as a consumer or for purposes outside its trade, business, craft or profession; marketing communications must make clear their commercial intent, if that is not obvious from the context.”

      Suggest it’s bookmarked for the future “”

    • Just as an update, I notice the Colin Maginn has now updated his Amazon review to declare he is a director of the Mindful Policy Group and also that MPG benefits financially from the book sales.

      Hopefully Phil Shepherd will follow suit to comply with ASA guidance.

  • Nigel Dodd says:

    I would just like to add the bit of biological perspective that acknowledges the instinctive wish by both (normal) parents to care and nurture their child and the benefits to the child of the diverse inputs into its development that both parents might provide in excess of what one parent alone might provide. Thus to deny the input of either parent into the child’s development might be counter-instinctive, sub-optimal and possibly cruel.

    By contrast we have from a previous comment in this thread “if (s)he hasn’t bonded strongly enough with the cater in question. Such parents are thinking about their own needs to be seen as a great parent rather than the needs of the child.”

    Now it can be the case that one parent takes the child for their own. If they took the child abroad this would be called abduction and the law would be on the side of restoration of balance. But if the relocation happens in the same country it is not called abduction and yet to the child it is exactly the same – the removal of the other parent from its life. This can, with the assistance of the ponderous and status-quo minded legal system, be continued for a time period that is effectively infinite in the mind of the child and their bond with the absent parent is reduced or lost.

    Suggesting that the child should not stay with the parent with whom it is not bonded is a catch-22 because the child may then never have the benefit of two parents.

  • nongenderbias9 says:

    Just so. Parents can split up before the child is born. In this case for the mother to deny the child their father is heartbreaking for the father and cruel to the child; whom later in life will want to discover their ancestral identity and question the cruelty of paternal absence however that may have come to pass. Why should the mother be supported by society to deny her child their father? What is the purpose of our mother-centric policies and whom do they serve?
    Can father recover his role by attending “father’s story week” at school or will it take rather more than this?……….a seperate house close by, one that has enough extra bedrooms to house his children, enough money to support not only himself and his children but also his ex-wife and her home (which used to be his also), enough time on his hands that he can go to work and then be there when his kids get back from school weary and in need of nourishment.
    Where are the spaces in Dad’s life, the time capsule that will be his special place for just him and his children, time to give them his undivided attention, love and care, his re-assurances that he will always be there for them?

    Kind regards

  • Kevin says:

    People can write books as much as they want. Whether or not we take notice and guidance from them is each of our own choice. We have to remember that every book on this subject is somebody’s opinion, whether informed, scientific or from the heart. As a single dad, a parent support adviser and a worker with homeless youths I always find that parents apart isin’t generally a problem. Nor either is transition from one parent to another overnight and neither is spending some time with one parent and some time with another. The secret, I think, is to keep any disputes or disagreements between us parents away from the kids. If we actively get on with each other in front of the kids they have nothing to be anxious about. Worrying about how much time we spend with and who spends it with our children is a pointless waste of time. Perhaps we should ask the kids what they think?! I have worked with children from 2 years old upwards and, providing they speak, they will soon tell us who they want to spend their time with. Our kids are much more aware of their surroundings than we think they are and if the atmosphere we create around them is good, they will be good. Its not rocket science guys, it doesn’t matter how we feel about spending time with our children, surely it’s all about how they feel. Happy parents, whether together or not, make for a happy child. Forget what Penelope tells you, forget what the books tell you and just get on with each other, for your children! Even if you hate each other’s guts, you’re child doesn’t need to know, put you’re feelings by the wayside, never put each other down (your children will form their own opinion, believe me), support your kids as they deserve and they will grow up fine.

  • Andrew King says:

    Thanks for the blog. How the media grab at ideas is just as dangerous as the intent that Penelope meant when she wrote her book. As an Australian, I think this issue is more about conflict than if o/n contact is recommended (this is Macintosh’s original position). In cases with young children where high level conflict exists between the parents, it is more likely to induce anxiety for the child.

    A policy needs to point in the desired direction. The stronger the attachment a child has to both parents, the greater its benefit to the child.

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