When my first child was two and a half, she crawled up onto the couch and fell asleep. I was shocked. Really? She can do that? She had never fallen asleep without nursing before.
Western culture tells parents to train children to sleep alone or they will “never” learn to fall asleep by themselves. Even those of us who keep our babies close at night sometimes wonder if they will ever stop needing us.
In many cultures, this isn’t even a question. Sleep is a social event where families sleep together in one room for many years, even in large homes. These societies assume that babies will grow into children, who will eventually fall asleep without nursing or rocking, as of course they do.
Anthropologists often observe contemporary foraging cultures (hunter-gatherers) to determine what is biologically normal for humans. Societies like the !Kung in Botswana (Africa), the Ache in Paraguay (South America), and the Agta in the Philippines (Asia) provide clues into the behavior of our ancient ancestors.
In these cultures, babies sleep next to their mothers at night and nap on someone – a grandparent’s lap, a father’s arms, a cloth tied around their mother’s back – during the day. As the child grows older and perhaps gains a sibling, they might move to sleeping closer to a grandparent or other relative. Only when they reach puberty is there any thought that the child might choose to sleep alone at times.
With these infants and toddlers, no one worries about bedtime rituals or if they are getting enough sleep. These children nurse and fall asleep when they are tired. They snooze in someone’s arms or are put down on a mat or hammock while the family finishes evening activities, then are carried to bed when mom is ready for sleep.
For contemporary foraging cultures, there are generally no separate rooms or heat other than a fire, which could account for these arrangements. But many other industrialized societies around the world have similar childcare practices.
In Korean (and likely other languages as well), there is no word for co-sleeping (sleeping in the same room) or bed-sharing (sharing a mat or bed). It’s assumed that everyone sleeps together on floor mats in the same room, although today mattresses are sometimes added on top of the mats.
Other Asian cultures use similar arrangements. Often the sleeping room serves several purposes – mats and bedding are simply folded up and put away during the day. Floor beds and mats have the added benefit of avoiding hazards such as babies falling out of bed or becoming trapped between a bed frame and mattress.
Interestingly, cultural practices have also contributed to differences in Eastern and Western bedroom furnishings. A preference for carpeted floors and wearing shoes in the house may have led to lifting mattresses off the dirty floor and on to a bed frame in Western houses.
Clean, heated floors, and even a heated sleeping platform called a kang in some parts of China, make floor sleeping comfortable in most Eastern homes. Western houses generally have cold floors, since the air is heated through fireplaces and furnaces.
Even some cultures that do use elevated beds often embrace social sleeping, such as parts of the Middle East and southern Europe. Family interconnectedness is highly valued in these societies. My son spent a semester studying in Barcelona, Spain and often posted videos of late night parades enjoyed by entire families, including young children and babies sleeping in carriers.
Interdependence (rather than independence) and kinship are common values in Eastern societies as well, which also contribute to sleep preferences. In traditional Japanese culture, co-sleeping on tatami mats is compared to a river. The parents are banks on either side, containing, protecting and guiding the water – their child – in the middle.
In fact, this belief in security and comfort for children at night is key for many co-sleeping cultures. Mayan parents in Latin America consider it abusive and unkind to put a baby to sleep in another room. Infants and young children generally fall asleep in someone’s arms and are carried to bed when the rest of the family is ready for sleep.
Parents in Kenya and other parts of Africa believe that it’s dangerous for babies to sleep alone in a separate room. Infants are cuddled, carried and breastfed frequently day and night. Anthropologists note that it’s rare to hear African babies cry, since they are comforted at the breast any time they stir.
It may be time for those of us who live in Western countries to question whether forcing early sleep independence in children really makes sense. If you have ever met an adult immigrant from Africa or Asia or Latin America, you have met someone who probably slept with their parents for years – and became confident and self-reliant enough to travel thousands of miles from home.
So, if shared sleep with babies and children is biologically normal for humans and common in other cultures, why are Western parents so scared to do it? Why do medical professionals and public health officials warn against it? What does the research literature really say? We will look at this in the next What Babies Need.
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