Getting your Zzz’s as a baby: How you learn to sleep depends on your culture
The topic of how to get babies to sleep can be a touchy and stressful subject for many parents. There’s been a lot of popular articles written on the topic, and these articles have been published in unsurprising places like Parents Magazine and HuffPost Parents, as well as some less expected places like The Washington Post and Forbes. Articles like these are often filled with information about the pros and cons of every imaginable sleep arrangement between a parent and infant, and they tend to not be shy about sharing what they think the best arrangement is.
While I believe that the advice given in all of these articles are well-intentioned, I won’t be providing any parenting advice or suggestions here. What I’d like to do instead is to provide a few interesting examples of various ways babies in different cultures sleep and show that each culture has its reasons for having babies sleep in a certain way.
Outdoor napping in Nordic countries
Infants growing up in Nordic countries often take naps in their strollers, outdoors—even in the winter! Nordic infants typically take their first outdoor nap when they’re as young as 2 weeks of age and continue taking outdoor naps on a daily basis until they are 1-2 years of age (Tourula, Isola, & Hassi, 2008). Although making your infant take a nap in freezing temperatures may seem like neglectful parenting to Americans, Nordic parents believe that the outdoor fresh air is good for infants’ health and that time spent outdoors, breathing fresh air—while asleep or awake—is beneficial for infants’ health. Although it is unclear as to whether napping outdoor actually improves infants’ health, research has found that infants take significantly longer naps outdoors than they do indoors. Outdoor napping is thus one way in which Nordic parents promote health.
Co-sleeping in Japan
Japanese infants co-sleep with their mothers and continue to co-sleep with their mothers for the first few years of their life (Rothbaum et al., 2000). Though co-sleeping (for so long) is controversial in the United States, Japanese mothers co-sleep with their children for a number of reasons. Although some reasons for co-sleeping are practical—such as space constraints in Japanese homes—other reasons are related to cultural values: specifically, Japanese cultural values of social harmony and empathy. Japanese parents teach infants values of social harmony and empathy through many behaviors that promote and maintain physical contact; these behaviors include carrying, holding, and co-sleeping, among many others. By being in almost constant physical contact with their infants, parents can be keenly aware of, attend to, and empathize with their infants’ state and needs. Co-sleeping is thus just one of many behaviors Japanese mothers engage in with their infants to demonstrate and teach Japanese cultural values of social harmony and empathy.
Self-soothing in Northern Germany
Babies in Northern Germany learn to sleep on their own, as well as to entertain themselves and self-soothe upon awakening each morning (LeVine & Norman, 2001). Northern German parents value raising children who are virtuous and self-reliant; thus, from an early age, Northern German infants are taught to not become overly dependent upon others, including their mothers. One way in which mothers teach infants this self-reliance is through demonstrating to infants that their needs should be adjusted to the family. By having infants sleep alone in their own room and bed and leaving infants alone in their room for an hour or more upon awakening each morning, Northern German mothers create safe environments in which infants learn to be independent.
On the surface, sleep is just a daily routine that allows infants to grow and develop physical regulation. However, a bit of a deeper look reveals that how parents approach infant sleep is a reflection of their cultural beliefs and values. So instead of thinking about different infant sleeping arrangements as being the “right” or “wrong” way of sleeping, we may all benefit from thinking about our own cultural beliefs and values, as well as asking ourselves why we may prefer certain infant sleeping arrangements over others.
LeVine, R. A., & Norman, K. (2001). The infant's acquisition of culture: Early attachment reexamined in anthropological perspective. Society for Psychological Anthropology, 12, 83-104.
Rothbaum, F., Pott, M., Azuma, H., Miyake, K., & Weisz, J. (2000). The development of close relationships in Japan and the United States: Paths of symbiotic harmony and generative tension. Child Development, 71(5), 1121-1142.
Tourula, M., Isola, A., & Hassi, J. (2008). Children sleeping outdoors in winter: Parents' experiences of a culturally bound childcare practice. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 67(2-3), 269-278.