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Saturday, August 6th, 2011

The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep

Western sleeping baby/ -

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 lives in Germany and is married to my husband’s brother). 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.


I was reminded of this in my recent conversation with my sister-in-law because I think we have it all wrong when it comes to babies and sleep in the West. I don’t think infants need to be in their own crib to sleep when they are so young. I no longer think it’s the best approach. Issues like these are what fueled the creation of InCultureParent. While I know a decent amount about the world and other countries, I knew very little when it came to raising children in other countries and cultural beliefs around childrearing. Despite all the time I spent online on American parenting websites, I always felt the answers were different sides of the same coin and were just so—for lack of a better descriptor—white American. While the rest of my life was filled with diversity in everything from the food I cooked, where I lived, whom I married, the books I read, the languages I spoke, the friends I had, the information I found about childrearing was all in the same dominant cultural vein, which was largely white American. It didn’t mesh with the way I lived the rest of my life and yet this was the most crucial aspect of life now: my children. So I set out to discover what other cultures do, and InCultureParent materialized in the process.


With my second child, I was less of a sleep Nazi and let her stay in our bed a little longer before moving her to a crib. But she was still too young. At one year, she got her own room, rather than moving her with her sister because I was raised in the belief that every kid needs their own room. Now that I have really changed my thinking on this, it seems bizarre—why do we want babies and toddlers to be all by themselves, in their own little separate cubes away from each other and the rest of the family? Because they will wake each other up, because I will be too tired at work, because—I get it. I thought the same thing with both my children. (They now share a room and a bed.) If we ever have a third, I would approach sleep differently, though. I would have no expectation of moving him (and yes, I’m assuming “he” would be a boy) to a crib until he is ready and he would likely move from our bed to a mattress on the floor, and then graduate to a room with his siblings.


Research on children and sleep also supports the benefits of co-sleeping. Heron’s 1994 study of middle class English children found children who never slept in their parents bed tended to be harder to control, less happy, exhibited a greater number of tantrums and were more fearful than children who always slept in their parents bed. Lewis and Janda in a 1988 study determined that males who co-slept with their parents between birth and five years of age had significantly higher self-esteem and experienced less guilt and anxiety. Yet for some reason, co-sleeping in the U.S. continues to be a practice that is advised against.


Based on all this, it’s no longer my philosophy to put an infant in a crib in a room alone. (As a disclaimer, if it’s your philosophy, I am not critiquing you. I’m a firm believer in whatever works for you as a parent and what you think is best for your child, so there’s no judgment implied. I also know it’s easy to have an opinion on these things when you are no longer suffering from extreme sleep deprivation. Who knows, in those circumstances again, I may opt to put my infant in another room out of desperation. When my first born was colicky, I had fantasies of leaving her outside the house to scream so I could just get a couple hours of uninterrupted sleep….what the brain wouldn’t think for sleep.)


All in all, when we surround ourselves with Western books and parenting websites, we have a very limited view of the many ways to raise a child.


© 2011 – 2013, Stephanie Meade. All rights reserved.

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Stephanie is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent. She has two Moroccan-American daughters (ages 5 and 6), whom she is raising, together with her husband, bilingual in Arabic and English at home, while also introducing Spanish. After many moves worldwide, she currently lives in Berkeley, California.

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  1. CommentsThe West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep | Save My Relationship   |  Saturday, 06 August 2011 at 10:15 pm

    [...] The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep Tags: babies r us, brother, dr ferber, dr sears, germany, moroccan  |  Trackback « Datamapper ORM Multi-tabel Relationship Halp! [...]

  2. Commentsclaire niala   |  Sunday, 07 August 2011 at 11:35 am

    wonderful piece.

  3. CommentsAnnette   |  Monday, 08 August 2011 at 10:17 am

    Great article Stephanie! I think the current American norm is not only very different from many other cultures, but very different from most historical experiences as well.

  4. CommentsHeather   |  Monday, 08 August 2011 at 12:06 pm

    I don’t know if it is completely a Western thing. I had my third child in Sweden. They have a vinyl cover they slip over the railing of the hospital bed, and baby starts off sleeping next to mama. The only “nursery” they have is the NICU.

    A stroll through Ikea in Sweden almost always models a child’s crib in the parent’s room. So I think co-sleeping (as opposed to bed sharing) is pretty much the norm here. I have done the sleep thing all ways, and whatever brings peace to your family is what is best I think!

  5. CommentsThe Editors   |  Monday, 08 August 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Really interesting comment on Ikea Heather. At Ikea in the US, the baby’s room is always shown by itself. I’ve never seen the crib in the parent’s room! Always fascinating how global companies customize for their local audience. And I agree, it’s not completely all Western countries, and it largely is a US thing, but not exclusively either.

  6. CommentsHeather   |  Tuesday, 09 August 2011 at 10:04 am

    Just FYI, not necessarily for publication – roll over the bottom of the first bedroom and click through to the 9th picture. Pretty typical..

  7. CommentsAnon   |  Friday, 12 August 2011 at 11:07 am

    I think the fact that this phenomenon exists in the US is due to many societal factors. One is maternity leave policies in the US. If you had a year of maternity leave, as countries such as Norway and Canada have, you might be inclined not to rush to put your infant in a separate room and in less of a rush to have them “sleep trained” so that you and your partner could sleep through the night by the time they are four months old and you have to return to work.

    Additionally, in many non-Western (and even some Western) countries, joint family systems are the norm. You may not have the extra rooms to spare for a baby who really only needs a crib and a changing table. Sleep training is also not needed when you have 2 – 4 extra sets of hands to help put your infant to sleep. My sister-in-law, who lives in a joint family system, says she never touched her infant swing because anytime her infants were overly fussy, one grandparent would strap him in the carseat and take the child for a car ride or pace the house rocking him so both the parents could get some sleep.

    I applaud you for raising these points. With my first also, I was so focused on sleep training so that I could be less sleep deprived when I returned to work. Now, with my second one who is an infant, I immensely enjoy my quiet time with him at night…but am still sleep deprived, of course. Ironically, he naturally is starting to sleep through the night though we don’t use any of the methods we used with our first.

  8. CommentsJan   |  Sunday, 14 August 2011 at 8:17 am

    I was fairly lucky, I guess. My wife was afraid we would crush our first daughter in our sleep, but she was fairly high maintenance so we took her into our bed on the 3rd night or so.
    Reading “3 in a bed” reconciled her with the idea (

    Btw: if you think your 3rd is going to go to do an interim step before joining the siblings, think again. He’ll be out of your bed in no time to be with them. That’s what our 2nd did and I’m sure BK3 will do the same soon.

  9. CommentsCandice   |  Thursday, 22 December 2011 at 7:35 pm

    When my daughter was born she was in bedroom but I felt the pressure to have her sleep in her crib exclusively. When she was about 3 months old I started to breastfeed her in my bed at night and bring her to her crib when she was sleeping but as time went on I just kept her with me all night and ditched the crib. She ended up co-sleeping with me for 4 years! She had a bedroom because I felt she had to though but we never even used it!! In winter it was a storage area that we kept cold and literally put an insulating thing under the door to keep the cold in that useless room. We lived in a 3 room apartment (living, dining and bedroom).
    We’ve since moved into a 3 bedroom apartment but we rent one and live in 2 bedrooms as a 4 person family. My new baby stared off sleeping full nights with me and as he became a better sleeper I was able to introduce the crib which he sleeps in, well swaddled and right beside my bed, for the first half of the night. I love my set up and it’s what works for us! People find us weird but when it works, it works!

  10. CommentsSurekha Kumar   |  Thursday, 31 May 2012 at 11:43 pm

    Norway foster care specialists snatched the children from one Indian family. What’s the reason of snatching the kids from their parents? 1. They were sleeping with their toddlers on the same bed. 2. They were feeding the child from hand, although some sort of Indian culture uses hand instead of spoon and 3rd. elder child was notorious and naughty at school. Now tell me if children are not going to be naughty, then where comes the childhood? How innocence can be justified? It was the bad phase and now the children’s are handed over to their grandparents banning their own parents for handling the kids after several rounds of talk between Indian and Norway govn.

  11. CommentsInCultureParent | Why African Babies Don’t Cry   |  Friday, 15 February 2013 at 12:26 pm

    [...] [...]

  12. CommentsUte   |  Wednesday, 20 February 2013 at 10:06 am

    I must say, that I didn’t let anyone tell me what to do when my son was born. We shared the same room with him and he often slept in our bed. That was the perfect solution for me, us. We did the same with my twindaughters and it was ok for all of us. As for the sleeping-habits in our Western Society, have a look here : (I found the German article about this on Wikipedia even more helpful). – Thank you very much for bringing this up! More parent’s should be more relaxed about this.

  13. Commentsorana velarde   |  Thursday, 21 March 2013 at 11:35 am

    Our oldest daughter hardly ever used her crib either, she slept in my bed or on a bed in the same room until she was 6. When she was 11 we had a second baby and no spare room so it was obvious to just have him in our room. We put two beds together and he slept next to the wall so he wouldnt fall off. Now that we live in Thailand and have another baby, the toddler sleeps in a little ikea bed next to our bed on one side and the baby in a crib on the other side. Of course, in the morning all four of us are on the big bed, and to top it off sometimes our 13 year old comes over to hang out and its five of us! At least we all get to sleep properly.

  14. CommentsThe Editors   |  Thursday, 21 March 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Thanks for that sweet story Orana- I loved it. I often think it would be nice to sleep that way – my kids (now 4 and 6) would be SO happy to be in the same room with us. It’s one of the things they love about vacations, when we all sleep together in the same room.

  15. CommentsMary   |  Tuesday, 06 August 2013 at 2:56 am

    Our daughter has always slept in our room. She is now 41/2 years old. She used to sleep beside the bed but now she prefers to sleep in our bed. It makes total sense that she would want to sleep with us. It creates security. Since I have been more busy during the day with working and sometimes I can’t give her my undivided attention, I feel that it creates more security because at night I am with her. I wonder if any studies have been made on this? If the child can’t be with the parent during the day, and then can’t be with them at night–no wonder they are anxious.

  16. CommentsThea   |  Friday, 16 August 2013 at 2:55 pm

    No, the IKEAs in Texas all have the cribs in the parents bedroom, in all the showrooms. I think its great! Especially here in Texas where most babies start out in their own cribs.

  17. CommentsThe West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep | Mazzocchi ESL   |  Thursday, 26 September 2013 at 8:13 am

    […] The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep […]

  18. CommentsGreyhounds   |  Sunday, 15 December 2013 at 4:26 pm

    fallacy: non-weatern cultures don’t do it, but western ones do… therefore western cultures are wrong.

  19. Commentsmelinda   |  Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 9:45 am

    I live in italy and my mother in law thinks my son should sleep in his crib, which is in our room, hes still night feeding and i just like having him near. The other night when we stayed there, he rolled out of bed! I felt all the guilt in the world, plus that of mother in law!

  20. CommentsGrounded Parents | Ditching the Crib at 6 Months   |  Monday, 17 February 2014 at 9:01 am

    […] those of us living in the United States, crib sleeping can seem like a universal norm, but it isn’t. Infant beds are a pretty culture-specific phenomenon, and babies around the world sleep much […]

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