The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep

Babies and Sleep

We have a weird relationship with 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 upon 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 with 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 sleeps 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 represented largely a white American viewpoint. 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. 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 this website materialized in the process.

diverse baby sleeping
Image Credit: Unsplash

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 parent’s beds 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 parent’s 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 firstborn was colicky, I had fantasies of leaving her outside the house to scream so I could just get a couple of 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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. Totally identify with this. While I respect other parents’ decisions, I never understood the western parent’s fixation with putting the baby in a crib and training her/him to sleep away from the mother – even as a newborn! Our first needed a lot of attention, and he spent most of his first six months in our arms. We had wrapped our heads around this notion already so we were prepared for it. This motherhood practice is one of the things we’re thankful for working in Asia for. It is a baby and kid-friendly culture, and the entire community (not just the parents and immediate family) helps out with babies and kids.

  15. Excellent article. My baby is ten months old and sleeps next to our bed in her crib. I’ve caught a lot of flack for it, and I don’t understand why – what is the rush to get them out into their own rooms? I don’t judge my friends for moving their kids out at three months so I don’t see why anyone has to judge me for my decision. To me it just feels natural, and as a new mom I’m trying to follow my heart and instincts as to what is the best for my baby.

  16. Thank you for this great article. I wish I’d had it earlier. I felt pressure to move our child out of our room and did so when he was 6 months. I thought it crazy that the youngest most vulnerable person in the house was the one sleeping alone. Even our pets don’t sleep alone! I have frequently brought him into bed with us at night but wish I had never felt the pressure to go against my instincts and move him out in the first place. Culture aside we are fundamentally mammals and other mammals would never
    leave their new babies alone at night. If I had it to do over our child would co sleep until ready to move into a bed with siblings. Thanks again!

  17. As a mommy soldier I had a lot of different experiences. I too co slept with my 2 boys. I sleep trained my first at 6 months, but before that he was in my bed or 10% of the time in the bassinet next to me. I stopped breast feeding when he was about 4 months because the life of a soldier is 24/7 and my milk supply dwindled. He’s a typical crazy 3 year old now, If he wakes up in the middle of the night he is welcomed into bed, but that happens maybe once a week. My 9 months old Started sleeping in his crib next to me and when he woke up for his first feeding he was in the bed for the rest of the night. When he was 6 months he crawled off the bed while we slept. I cried so much and felt horrible that I slept through him waking up. He sleeps in the crib next to me now, I am just starting to sleep train him because his dad works nights now. Before he was born My family and I were stationed in Korea. My shifts were overnight and My oldest had a room for himself. We looked everywhere for a crib, but Koreans co sleep. We ended up getting him a twin and a barrier from the PX (army walmart). He was potty training so cosleeping was a wet affair, but the rules we have now were still intact. If he woke up he was welcome to sleep with us. Life is stressful for a 3 year old. He gets in trouble a lot with being too rough with the baby or not listening. I hate punishing him but I hold my ground. But if he asks to sleep with me after story time and it was a hard day, He can. I feel that with all the corrections he receives through the day, he can feel safe and loved at night. I need it too 😉

  18. When I was pregnant I told myself my son would sleep in his crib from day 1 and I would breastfeed for 6 months. Well, I stopped breastfeeding after 2 weeks because I was so sleep deprived from him not sleeping in his crib. I just started putting him in his swing, but even then he barely slept. A few times I fell asleep with him in my arms. He slept for most of the night. But when I would tell me mom she would get so mad and tell me he needed to sleep in the crib across the room. At a month he slept through the night in his swing. He’s now 3 months and has suddenly started waking up every few hours. So I’ve been looking into getting him to sleep in his crib. All I see is the same “he just needs a routine” or “let him cry.” Nothing works. My husband (who is away for Military training) just told me to sleep with him. He knows I hate sleeping without the baby, it feels so wrong. Instinct tells me to sleep with my baby next to me. Last night was the first night I got real sleep in a long time. He went to sleep around 8 and didn’t wake up until a bit past 3, then he fell back asleep until 6. And now he’s napping. He’s rarely ever taken naps. And he is now because he’s in my bed next to me.

  19. Why have we developed this in the west, do you think? Is it to do with both parents having to go back to work? Is it misogynistic? ( the woman should be in bed with her man who should not have to share her with a child)? Is it that we lack the support of a ‘village’? I have wondered a lot about this. I never intended to share a bed with my children, but I have, and it is one of the great joys of my life .

  20. Are you also fluent in Arabic? Just curious based on your children being bilingual per your bio. We are a mixed family and I’m only partially fluent in Arabic but husband is a native speaker and so I was curious how you facilitated that. Thanks

  21. Hi Meme,

    I am not fluent and only know a few phrases and basic things. I have written a lot about this topic–it’s definitely tough to raise kids in a language you don’t speak and very tough for the kids to acquire real fluency. If you speak it that will help A LOT! I would definitely try to speak it together as much as you can, even if it’s hard for you. And try to talk to your kids in Arabic as much as you can! My children are now 6 and 8 and are passive bilinguals–they understand everything in Arabic but speak very little.

    Here are a few articles to start:

  22. Hi all! American married to Egyptian and we are expecting our first in Sept, God willing. After speaking with many girls in the Arabic community as well as ladies married to Arabic men, most seem to pull this off rather well and I am looking forward to it as well! A few questions though:
    1) My (American) mom is so excited to help me put together a nursery!….wondering how I can help make her feel included but stick with skipping the nursery.
    2) I apologize if this is personal, but, um, I haven’t seen a single person comment on their intimate relationship with their partners during this time? I ask because my sister in law planned to cosleep, but after a few months she was so desperate for time with her husband they ended up sleep training to a crib in a separate room anyway. So, if you don’t mind, can you give any tips on how to avoid this interfering with “grown up time”?
    Thanks so much!

  23. Hi Hajar! I have 3 (almost 4, 10 weeks to go), we sleep on a king mattress with a single beside it, generally I sleep with the 3 on the King and my husband is on the single! (Babies are 6,4 and 1). I get asked A LOT about sex. We have sex 3-4 times a week … Generally on the couch, but sometimes we just put a fluffy blanket on the ground in the lounge room!

  24. Thanks for writing this!! My baby is 7 months, and I love having her sleep in my room. I don’t mention it too often to people who have had kids because they seem a little judgy on it. So tonight I started wondering if there is some developmental reason I should move her or if it has to do more with getting sleep. We get just as much sleep with her as we would without her in the room, so I wanted to look into it. It was hard to find info at first glance – we live in a small condo so moving her to the nursery where she naps is actually less than ideal since it’s right by our living space. Then I thought I should see if there was info on what people do around the world (since living quarters gloabally are often smaller than in the US and I found this!). I love it and feel like what I have been feeling inside is validated. I love sleeping with her in my arms in the bed. I love having her by our side. I love being able to nurse her so easily in the middle of the night when needed. So thank you for writing this. 5 years later, it is still helpful.

  25. Hi Kim!

    I am so glad that this article was useful for you and made you feel validated as a parent. It’s not often in this judgmental world of parenting we get that, right?! That’s the main reason I love writing and sharing my experiences, in the hopes it can be useful to others.

    Wish you all the best!

  26. Thanks for the article! I tried to put my newborn twins into a bassinet at birth, but there was just no way! No way to breastfeed and no way to survive the nights with two of them waking me up all of the time. We lived in Africa at the time so I asked my nanny what they do there, and of course she told me they just sleep with the babies. In fact, she thought it was pretty cruel to put the babies to sleep all by themselves like we did. She felt they’d be cold and lonely and scared like that. And I realized she had a point.

    So I read all the primary research on co-sleep, looked up all available statistics (I’m a researcher by profession), and realized we have been led astray in the west. It actually seems to me that it probably really got started with the Victorian era, when private bedrooms started to become common and kids got separated (as did husbands and wives, often, into their own bedrooms, too!). But as husbands and wives started moving back together into the same room, ongoing extreme taboos about sex and the “marital bed” and the west’s peculiar ideas about the ultra-high importance of being independent and the ways in which a parent should make a child become ‘independent’ led to the continued kids-are-separate routines. The irony in all of this, of course, is that 1)sex doesn’t have to happen in the “marital bed”, and 2)kids who have more contact and security tend to gain the traits that the west associates with appropriate ‘independence of spirit’ so co-sleeping can actually help.

    We ditched the bassinet pretty quick, and being in Africa were widely supported in that. It helped me exclusively breastfed the twins for over 5 months, and to breastfeed until 14 months of age before full weaning. Now that we moved to the USA, though, we do get odd looks when we show our house off to friends or family and they inevitably notice the lack of any kids’ bedroom (only a playroom in a common space) and our room having a king+twin on the floor. We even had one visitor tell us she thought it was “cool, if you’re into that hippie stuff, I say why not?” Uh, yeah, thanks for that validation. Ha!

    Anyway, I research almost everything I can when it comes to the kids, and find that there’s a lot that folks do that either makes little sense or doesn’t likely lead to the results they want. In the West, the thing that drives me batty the most is the commercial industry that has risen around teaching folks how to parent. And because a lot of the authors claim a lot of authority (often that isn’t actually all that relevant to teaching others how to parent), grandparents and others who might otherwise counter that advice due to actual experience and actual caring about the individual kids in question quiet down and assume these all-powerful authors and authorities must have it right. Oh how sad for us in the West!

    So thanks for the very nice article and the many other nice articles on the site. Happy co-sleeping!

  27. As a first-time mom I’ve spent the last two months of my four-month-old’s life stressed out about her sleep and I recognize how crazy this is. It’s clearly not working for me! I’m wondering how non-Western cultures handle daytime sleeps because this obsession with nap schedules and baby getting enough sleep has turned me into a basketcase. I want to know, can I just say, “Screw you, nap schedules,” and just let my baby sleep when she falls asleep on her own? Are there mothers out there who just wing it and find that it works?
    At the same time, I’m

  28. Please, refrain from using “western /western society” for anglosaxon countries. Western can be Mexico and Spain as well, anything on the west side of the world is western 🙂

  29. Hi…I am an Asian who was adopted and raised by Caucasian American missionaries in South America. I have two kids-my daughter is 16 and my son is 11. When I had my first baby I too was indoctrinated into the dangers that of co-sleeping and co-habitint…particularly the detrimental effect it would have on the marital relationship. However I was a single mom with no money. I rented a bedroom in an apartment and hung quilts from pvc piping attached to the ceiling to make a makeshift bedroom for my baby. She slept in her crib for the first 6 months. Then we moved to another apartment where she had her own room, but I quickly learned (going to school full time and working three part time jobs), that letting her sleep with me made nursing her much much easier. Then after experiencing the tremendous joy it was to cuddle her all night I “secretly” continued this until she was 2 1/2. My brother adopted her age and after cutting me out of her life for a year, I took him to court and she was retuned to me almost 4 yrs old. I let her sleep with me mostly bc we only had one bedroom available to us and bc I was anxious to re-establish a bond with her, seeing as she had been cruelly ripped out of my life. But I got married a year later and due to my earlier indoctrination about the negative effects cosleeping would surely have on my new marriage, i weaned her to her own room at age five. Now yea s later I regret this. She has had a lot more f emotional turmoil and attachment issues that have had devastating effects on her life…including suicide attempts and hospitalizations. On the other hand, (I am now forty years old and) my son is sleeping next to me as we speak. My marriage ended in divorce anyway bc he (husband) turned out to be severely mentally ill monster. When I had my son we had set up a nursery for him too, but again, nursing him meant that sleeping with him made life much easier for everyone. And again, i loved cuddling him next to me! I kept telling myself I would wean him next year, but “next year” came and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. When he was just 6 I became chronically severely ill and bedridden, and of course this increased my reluctance to wean him even more, as I was alone all day most days in bed due to my illness, and having him next to me was my only comfort. We sleep with separate blankets and pillows, and most nights my illness keeps me up all night anyway, and having him next to me means I am not alone. Last year I finally weaned him to his own bed, but then this summer we could not afford to cool the whole house down, so he is back to sleeping with me, which I feel terribly guilty about but at the same time I love! I love looking over at his angelic sleeping face and giving him a kiss on his cheek. I have lost all my friends and social life due to my illness, and recently my kitty died of feline leukemia, so now he really is my only company most days, as we cannot afford to replace him. I know ppl wiould be appalled at this but I wondered what u thought about our situation. I figured that since I don’t know any 18 yr old kids who still sleep with their parents I didn’t have to worry too much about him, that he would leave when he was ready to, except on hot summer nights maybe. Well and my bed is where I live now, not just a sleeping place, pls don’t be too hard on me if u think this is bad. Thanks again for this article.

  30. The arrival of a baby is certainly a cause for joy but sometimes it becomes a cause for concern for parents.Special when they have to share a room with a baby in one bedroom apartment. Thanks for sharing some nice tips for sharing room with a baby. It’s really helpful tips.

  31. Very great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wished to mention that I have truly enjoyed
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  32. I would hesitate to draw conclusions on statistics that are not surrounded by related context such as household size and family size. If there are eight members in a family and three bedrooms, most people would keep a baby in their room until they’re old enough to tolerate an older sibling and vice versa. The West has smaller family sizes and bigger houses so I also think that opportunity for giving an infant his/her own space plays a role here and you can’t assume why parents do what they do by looking at what 67% end up doing with no context of resources, class/income, occupations, opportunities etc (which also as a statistician I can tell you 67% is not a whopper there)…
    My kid sleeps better in her own room and we have enough rooms for her to have her own. Lol that’s why she’s in there. Wonderful article just be mindful when you use statistics in social and cultural contexts.


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