We have a weird relationship to babies and sleep in the West. I was reminded of this when I spoke to my German sister-in-law recently. She had just arrived back in Germany from Spain, where she was visiting her little sister who had just had a baby. My sister-in-law commented that the baby was great, except “she doesn’t sleep in her bed, only in the arms, so that’s a little hard.”
The sleep of babies is a very profitable empire. We have many books and experts on the topic—Dr. Ferber, Dr. Karp, Dr. Sears and Dr. Weissbluth, to name a few. I’ve read them all. I may have even taken notes in the margins. Seriously. I had a colicky first-born, so in desperation I poured over every book I could find. The empire extends way beyond books, though; we have built a whole industry around the sleep of babies—creating the nursery (don’t get me wrong—I loved that part) and buying the crib, the crib set, the mobile, the rocker, the swing, and all the other gear. I remember my husband almost throwing up on himself on our first trip to Babies-R-Us in the U.S. when I was five-months pregnant. I insisted we needed the $300 five-piece crib set (bumper, blanket, sheet, ruffle and I can’t even remember the fifth item—oh yeah, diaper bag—who has time to be refilling a diaper bag?) and he thought I was out of my mind. I remember feeling quietly devastated we couldn’t agree on buying it because it was ESSENTIAL, couldn’t he see that?
In the majority of non-Western societies, babies sleep with their parents–if not in the bed, then in the same room. So do young children. It is only in industrialized Western countries that sleep has become a compartmentalized, private affair. In one study (Barry, H., & Paxson, 1971) of 186 nonindustrial societies, 46% of children sleep in the same bed as their parents while 21% sleep in a separate bed but in the same room. In other words, in 67% of the cultures around the world, children sleep in the company of others. Even more significant, in none of those 186 cultures do babies sleep in a separate place before they are at least one year old. The U.S. consistently stands out as a country where babies are routinely placed in their own beds and in their own rooms.
In the rest of the world, babies don’t need their own cribs and rooms because everyone expects babies to be close to the mother after birth—they only just came out of the mother’s body, after all. But the majority of Americans expect them to be in a bed all on their own, rather than snuggled up close to the same body they were inside of for nine months. Seems odd doesn’t it? Most of us are taught this is the way. Because there doesn’t seem to be any other way, we have developed different methods within that way—no cry, cry it out, modified cry, etc. With my first child, I was both annoyed and baffled when she wouldn’t sleep in her crib. I assumed there was something wrong in my sleep training method or in my sleep routine even though it was flawless, just like all the books instructed. I didn’t think there was something fundamentally flawed in the entire approach.
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