When Melissa, my then 2 and a half year old, asked me ‘why do you sleep in daddy’s bed and I sleep on my own?’ it led me to question this myself; and believe me, I had no reasonable or justifiable answer for my little girl. Furthermore, when she asks me for a night time cuddle I also have to question ‘why not?’ After all, I regularly fall asleep with my husband’s arm draped over me, and often find it difficult to drift off when he’s away or working the night shift.
Yet in the UK (and USA) it is the ‘norm’ to expect your child to sleep alone. In fact, you are considered unlucky if your child does not do this willingly, and there’s a whole host of books and websites on ‘sleep training’ techniques – no cry, cry it out, controlled crying, modified crying; all with the aim, one way or another, to get your child to ‘self soothe’ and sleep on their own. But don’t you think it odd that we expect our own flesh and blood, our bundle of joy, the tiniest most important being in the whole world to sleep alone, rather than snuggled up close to the same person they were attached to for nine months?
In other countries around the world, the idea of ‘teaching’ a baby to sleep is a foreign one.
In fact, if I were writing this blog for a different audience, I may even have to define the meaning of ‘sleep training’ as it simply doesn’t exist in some cultures. In the UK and USA many parents view bedtime as a fixed 7pm every night. In contrast, in Latin America, Africa and Asian countries, toddlers are put to bed at a less fixed 10 or 11pm as parents want to spend time with their children after work. Furthermore for most of the world it is also standard practice to co-sleep (a whopping 72% in Singapore) and there are very few cultures that view a baby sleeping alone as acceptable or even desirable. We are in fact the minority!
Certainly when we lived in Uganda last year we observed that the children stayed up late and often shared a bed with their parents or even a grandparent or aunt, compensating for lack of night time sleep with long leisurely after school naps. When we’re holidaying in Spain or Italy we tend to slip into the pattern of a two hour siesta followed by a late evening meal as Melissa plays with the numerous other children that are enjoying this cooler time of day. You can often observe babies and toddlers asleep on their parents’ laps whilst the adults chat and enjoy a glass of wine together.
Furthermore, you’ll find that many child development experts will admit that there’s actually nothing intrinsically wrong with setting later bedtimes, as long as children make up for it somewhere by sleeping in or taking naps.
‘As long as they’re getting enough sleep, it doesn’t make too much difference’
Richard Ferber, Sleep guru and Director of the Centre for Paediatric Sleep disorders in Boston.
And when it comes to co-sleeping, research supports the benefits. A study (Heron, 1994) of middle class English children found children who never co-slept tended to be harder to control, less happy, more fearful and tantrum more than children who always slept in their parent’s bed. Another study (Lewis & Janda, 1988) determined that males who co-slept had significantly higher self-esteem. Perhaps most importantly, rates of infant mortality and SIDS are at their lowest in places such as Hong Kong and Japan where co-sleeping is extremely common.
Yet even when all the evidence suggests otherwise, we have this obsession with getting our child to sleep on their own.
In my opinion, and I fall into this category too, it is largely for our own convenience.
Our busy lives needs us to be more rigid about scheduling sleep. How else can we make sure the baby is up in time for nursery school or happy and contended in their swimming class? Furthermore, maternity leave is often painfully short (12 weeks in the USA) meaning that mothers worry that they won’t cope when back at work if baby doesn’t ‘sleep through the night’. Gone is the culture where night-wakings are expected and extended family members take it in turns to do night duty.
Compounding this problem is the fact that we live in a Western World that breeds competition.
It is considered ‘one-up’ on other mothers if your child sleeps through the night first. Couple this with the sleep deprivation and the general responsibility associated with parenthood and it’s no wonder that mothers feel anxious and judged for not doing their best or adhering to the ‘social norm’.
Interestingly, that actual practice of co-sleeping does not necessarily vary a great deal from culture to culture, just the social acceptance of it. In fact it’s likely that bed-sharing rates are grossly underestimated in the Western World just because people don’t want to admit to it. We’re told that we will spoil them, get into bad habits and make a rod for our own back.
At the end of the day, there’s enough guilt associated with parenting to last a life time. I’ve learned that only you as a parent know instinctively what will and won’t work for you and your baby, no judgement implied.
If that means going against the social norm so be it.
Every baby is different and some methods just aren’t appropriate for whatever reason. All in all, when we engulf ourselves with Western books and websites, we have a very narrow view of the many diverse and amazing ways to raise a child, and nurture them to sleep well.
If you’re interested in exploring this concept please read ‘How Eskimos Keep their Babies Warm’ by Mei-Ling Hopgood. Which is where the title for this post came from. I cannot recommend this book enough.
I would also love to hear your views on this, please feel free to leave comments below.