Raising a child can be a challenging task, and as parents we do our best to stay current on good parenting practices. In the 1970s, car seats were new and sleep was taken for granted. Today, numerous books on infant sleep can be found in any bookstore, and car seats are mandated by law in most places.
Parenting has become much more complex as we turn to science for answers that are based on more than just folk wisdom. This article examines some of the ways that culture and time affect the most basic aspects of parenting – your baby’s sleep.
As of 2006, courtesy of the “Back to Sleep” campaign, 76% of American babies are placed to sleep on their backs. The supine position significantly reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, but it hasn’t always been the medical favorite. In the 1970’s, the medical community suggested that babies be placed to sleep on their tummies due to fears of choking.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the tummy position had fallen out of favor. Parents were advised to place their children on either their sides or their backs when they sleep, in order to prevent SIDS. The “Back to Sleep” campaign’s emergence in 1992 led to sweeping changes in infant sleep positioning.
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised their sleep suggestions further, advocating supine (back) sleeping as the only safe position for infants that have not yet learned to roll over on their own.
The amount of time that babies are suggested to sleep at night and during naps has also varied widely across the years. A recent review in the AAP journal Pediatrics of sleep time recommendations for children and infants from 1897-2009 revealed that the amount of recommended sleep time that children require has steadily decreased, as has the actual amount of time that children sleep.
Additionally, regardless of how much sleep children have been getting, it has always been described as ‘not enough’ and the lack of ‘necessary’ sleep has almost always been attributed to ‘modern life.’
Parenting books written as recently as the 1990s suggested that waking a newborn up for feedings was unnecessary. Today parents are asked to wake newborns every 3-4 hours for feedings during the first two months. This change reflects a shift in thinking about infant nutrition, as well – on-demand breastfeeding is recommended for mothers who are able to do so today.
However, in the 1990s, formula and scheduled feedings were considered optimal. Anthropologists observing these changes have described the process as the ‘science of motherhood’ followed by a return to ‘ancient’ parenting practices.