For those of us that live in western cultures, we can easily assume that all parents around the globe put their babies to bed with stories, a bath, and pajamas. It’s hard to imagine what type of parents don’t have a separate nursery for their baby, complete with a crib that the little one is expected occupy alone.
The answer is pretty surprising – more than 70% of the global population co-sleeps, and many cultures believe it is neglectful of parents to leave their children in a separate bed at night. In some cultures, parents with more than one child will sleep in separate beds to make sure that each child gets to sleep with a parent!
Several recent reviews of sleep habits around the world have discussed the biological, anthropological, social, and medical consequences of differing sleep behaviors. Interestingly enough, for every behavior that is considered abnormal or dangerous by one culture, there is almost always another culture which considers the same behavior normal and safe.
Medical research has found little to no evidence that the sleep patterns often considered negative in our own society or in other societies really have any detrimental effects on parent or child health. This extends to co-sleeping, which, according to numerous studies, actually has the ability to decrease SIDS deaths.
It should be noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises against bed-sharing due to the potential risk for accidental suffocation which can occur if a bed is not properly prepared for an infant to bed-share, if a parent smokes, is obese, or abuses substances. Co-sleeping is not the same thing – confusing, right? Co-sleeping involves sharing a room, although not necessarily sharing the sleeping surface.
In the majority of cultures which have been studied to date, the most common sleeping arrangement is for an infant or child to sleep with a caretaker – usually a parent or sibling. While bed-sharing habits may vary, babies normally do not have their own rooms. In Bali, for example, it is believed that a child who is left to sleep in a room alone may have his or her soul stolen by evil spirits. Parents surveyed in a study of Italian babies’ and children’s sleep habits were shocked that American parents frequently left their children to sleep alone in a separate room, equating the idea to unnecessary mean-ness and neglect.
In Japan, co-sleeping is encouraged as a reflection of Japanese social norms – babies are seen as independent and co-sleeping is one method of encouraging them to form dependence on other people. According to research by J. McKenna, an anthropologist and director of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, the opposite values may in part be behind the American preference for crib sleeping.
Differences in culturally preferred sleep positions also exist. One of the main reasons that the effect of supine sleeping as a preventative measure for SIDS was discovered involved a study of sleep across ethnic groups. Individuals of Asian and African descent place their infants in a supine (on their backs) sleep position. This is a cultural preference. Europeans and European-Americans on the other hand, were more likely to place their babies prone (face down) to sleep. Lower rates of SIDS in African-American and Asian-American populations led to further studies of sleep position as an influential factor in SIDS, and eventually to the creation of the “Back to Sleep” campaign.
Bed times are also an American invention. Many southern Europeans, Asians, Africans, and South Americans do not enforce bedtimes or sleeping cycles for their babies and young children. In some parts of Asia, it is customary for young school age children to receive very little sleep, and the American phrase “Early to bed, early to rise” has a cultural opposite – “Late to bed, early to rise”.
In short, culture plays a significant role in the way infant and child sleep patterns are viewed. Normal in one culture can be extremely abnormal in another. Quality research on infant and child sleep, including nap time, is still in its beginning stages and most of the research on sleep in infants that does exist focuses on a limited portion of the population.
Always follow your doctor’s advice and stay up to date on the latest research in infant and child sleep. The field is growing, and each year more studies emerge, helping parents and medical professionals alike to gain a clearer understanding of what healthy, natural sleep is.
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