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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