Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. —Miriam Beard, Realism in Romantic Japan
I’m sitting on a patio in Buenos Aires, nibbling on cinnamon cake, talking with a group of friends about the way local parents raise their kids. We are a Chinese American, a Bolivian American, an African American, a Portuguese woman, and two Argentines—three mums, one expectant mum, and two maybe-somedays. Our husbands and significant others dip in and out of the conversation. The subject turns to raising a child in a culture that is different from our own, and the conversation goes something like this.
“It’s crazy,” I say. “There are so many things that mums and dads do so differently here, things I’d probably flip out about if I were in the States.”
Another American mum chimes in. “I know! I don’t know what to do when all these parents on the playground offer my kid a cookie. I say no sometimes. But I’ve had to relax about that and so many other things.”
“Doesn’t all that sugar make the children hyper?” someone asks.
“That’s not true,” says an Argentine, who is stewing a bit at the end of the table. “My son falls asleep earlier than anyone, with or without a few biscuits.”
“What about bedtimes? I mean, come on, Argentine kids are up at all hours,” another woman says.
“Yeah, I can’t believe they’re running around restaurants at midnight!”
“But it all works out,” I interject, knowing that I’ve been guilty of letting my child stay up past 11:00 p.m. more than once.
Raising a child abroad has been eye-opening. There are so many surprising, instructive moments of comparison and contrast, from the way Argentines pamper pregnant women (I was offered seats on trains and buses and urged to cut to the front of almost any queue) to the attitudes about food (fresh purées are fed to kids instead of prepackaged baby food).
The experience made me think back to all the observations I’d made in passing, pre-parenthood. I saw kids enthusiastically eating strange foods at a bar in a swamp town in Brazil and in the tent home of a family in rural Thailand. I watched in awe while mums and dads carried babies on their backs, hips, and chests as they climbed mountains, loaded lorries, and even drove motorcycles. My biological siblings in Taiwan suggested, to my amusement, that I might fold a thousand cranes for good luck when I was pregnant and insisted that I should drink only hot beverages after birth to ensure that my body healed properly. My Korean sisters-in-law slept with their kids well into toddlerhood with no guilt, and fixed steamed rice wrapped in seaweed nori wrappers for snacks and hot soup for breakfast. My birth sister, who was raised in Switzerland, told me how some kids grew up learning three or four languages in school.
These things once seemed like cultural eccentricities that might have made me marvel, laugh, or gasp in horror. But now that I’m a mum, I realize that in many cases there are interesting and really good reasons for why people do what they do. It occurred to me that if I asked the right questions, I could learn tons about parenthood from people in different cultures. So I set out in planes, trains, automobiles, cruising the Internet, looking for smart fathers and mothers who were willing to share their stories. I dug into the vast research of scholars schooled in other cultures, then hunted down some of those experts, as well as paediatricians, psychologists, and child developmental specialists, to ask them to help me understand what I was learning. I was familiar with the advantages and neuroses of parents in and from the middle-class West: how much we care about our families and the myriad inventions that have helped make our kids healthy and happy. I’m grateful for my BellaBand, BabyLegs, my Maclaren buggy, for WebMD and the many available innovative, modern baby products. But I wanted to step out of my comfort zone into communities that were not so familiar, to see what I might be missing.
Reading these chapters might make you think that I’m a mother who calculates her every move and decision. Once my first child was born, instinct tended to be my guide. The parenting books, magazines, and blogs were entertaining and occasionally helpful, but sometimes the advice made me feel inadequate, as if the wrong move meant certain disaster for my family. (Really, I didn’t need to do any more worrying.) I was so absorbed with the developments and challenges of the day that I’d forget what we’d been through six months before. The trials of breast-feeding and the first tooth faded into the recesses of my strained mummy brain as we moved on to preschool, viruses, and temper tantrums.
Observing real parents dealing with the similar challenges in distinct environments—often much more difficult or harsh than the reality I knew—forced me to think about what I was doing. Meredith Small, Cornell anthropologist and author of Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, a book on how culture and biology impact parenting, wrote:
The parental practices we follow in the West are merely cultural constructions that have little to do with what is “natural” for babies. Our cultural rules are, in fact, designed to mold a certain kind of citizen. A !Kung San woman of Botswana, for example, carries her baby at all times. She lets the baby breast-feed in a way that we in the West have unkindly, and tellingly, called “on demand.” A San child would never be left to sleep alone. In contrast, American babies, for example, are often set in plastic seats or in strollers [buggies] for long periods of time; they feed on a prescribed schedule; and the accepted rule is for each baby to have a bed, if not a private room, to itself. In general, the two styles reflect the place of person within society. Feeding, sleeping patterns, and how a baby spends the day quickly become a lesson in expectations. San children live in a tightly knit small community, where social integration is important. In America, social independence is favoured, and so babies are regulated and encouraged toward independence. The cultural milieu, then, is a powerful and barely studied force that molds how we parent.
When I saw how early the Chinese potty trained, how the French talked to their children about food, how members of a Lebanese– American extended family methodically taught their kids to feel deeply responsible for and connected to one another, I was compelled to think about what I wanted for my own child in a wider context. I began to examine, in many cases for the first time, not only how I was raising my child but also my entire value system. In the book Parental Behaviour in Diverse Societies, Harvard anthropologist Robert LeVine and his co-authors put it this way: “By exploring the contexts of parental behaviour in other cultures, we uncover universals and variables in the parental predicament and are able to place our current problems in a broader perspective.”
My conclusions weren’t always pretty, but I kept exploring, and the more I discovered, the more I wanted to know. What I heard and saw sometimes seemed strange, but at the same time much of it felt familiar. Being a good parent was such a universal concern, even if we had unique visions of what should and should not be done. I became a mum on a mission, searching the globe and, as a consequence, myself, for the secrets that could help me become the best parent I could be. This book is my quest.
How Buenos Aires Children Go to Bed Late
The hour hand has long since crossed twelve midnight, and my toddler is tirando fuego—on fire—shaking her hips to a salsa song with a handsome Argentine almost twice her age.
Sofia’s polka-dotted dress balloons into a mushroom cap as she spins in circles. Her ponytails are frazzled and crooked, and her heavy eyes remind me where her little body is supposed to be. Yet my baby is jubilant, ad-libbing, throwing in a wiggle here and a head shake there. Her dance partner, who is not quite two and a half years old, is stomping and shrieking encouragement. Sofia throws him a kiss.
We are breaking the rules again. The sleep routine we’ve cobbled together is toast, and I’m laughing and wilting inside. My child is so happy, winning her own Dancing with the Stars competition. I hate to be the one who quashes her Christmas Eve joy, but I know all too well that her father and I will pay for this in the morning. I’ve tried to put her down a couple times, but she is not having it, not one bit, not with the music, the fireworks lighting up the Buenos Aires sky, and her doting audience. One part of me is feeling guilty for this whooping transgression that would set sleep experts’ fingers a-wagging, but the other Argentine parents at the party, true porteños (Buenos Aires natives), don’t even flinch at the fact that our children are up at this hour. This is a special night, Nochebuena, when all Argentines celebrate Christmas and families are expected to be together. Besides, late nights for children are no big deal. Go to almost any parrilla (a traditional Argentine meat grill) or pizzeria in Buenos Aires, especially on a weekend or summer night, and you’ll spot kids of all ages out on the town.
This should feel normal to me now that we’ve lived in Argentina for four years. My husband and I tend to eat and sleep earlier than most Argentine families, but we frequently break the routine and let Sofia stay up and out, though not usually to this extreme. Yet I haven’t completely shaken my hang-up, the sense I might be committing a grave parenting offense. In Buenos Aires sleep schedules don’t get in the way of a good party. This idea once seemed crazy to me, a mum whose American friends go to great lengths to get their kids to bed, in their own bed, in their own room, before eight o’clock every night, but millions of Argentines have been raised this way. By following their lead, was I dooming my child to developmental, academic, and social failure, or were there lessons to be learned from more relaxed porteño mums and dads? As I watched my daughter shimmy across the living room, I needed some answers, fast.
When my husband and I moved to Argentina in 2004, we were married without kids and accustomed to staying up. In the States we spent plenty of weekend nights at bars until closing time, which usually meant 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. But Argentina kicked our butts. Friends would invite us for 9:00, 10:00, or 11:00 p.m. dinners, which entailed a picada (appetizer), a main course, a dessert, and then endless conversation. We would find ourselves falling asleep in our coffee at 3:00 a.m. Try as we might to soldier on, we’d often be the first to excuse ourselves and end up sleeping until noon the next day, blinded by the midday sun when we emerged from our bedroom. I was in awe: How do these people do it? They work in the morning and even have kids. Do they ever sleep?
These questions took on new urgency after we had our first child in Argentina, so I started asking around to local friends, mums and dads, paediatricians, and even cultural experts. Late nights, it turns out, are in this city’s cultural genes. Many people who live in Buenos Aires are descendants of Spanish and/or Italian families who moved to Argentina in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Those immigrants brought with them the habits of the southern Mediterranean, where people ate after the sweltering sun set and didn’t worry much about letting the kids stay up.
In their new land, also plentiful in hot daylight hours, people kept close their nonna’s pasta recipes, the traditional weekly family gathering, and the delayed dinner and bedtime hours. One historian that I spoke with, Dora Barrancos, head of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Gender Studies at the University of Buenos Aires, shared her theory that many immigrants were still single when they arrived, so they were able to paint the town at all hours, and these habits became a way of life.
For a while, the daily siesta helped regulate the sleep deficit. Then city residents rid themselves of that pesky little detail because business owners decided they wanted to use every hour they could to earn more money. Thus Buenos Aires evolved into a city of people who truly never seem to sleep, where restaurants owners don’t unlock their doors until 8:00 p.m. and queues don’t begin forming outside clubs until 2:00 a.m. It is a badge of honour, this lateness. The city’s official website brags, “In Buenos Aires you eat at nighttime, after 10 and on into the morning hours. While in cities like Paris, New York and London restaurants are packed at 8:30, in Buenos Aires, that doesn’t happen before 11 p.m.”
We were out for a stroll one summer night at about ten o’clock and observed our neighbourhood, Palermo, brimming with families. Most of the parrillas were only then filling with customers. The smell of steak wafted onto the pavement where young Argentines, dressed in their clubbing clothes, sipped champagne and waited for a table. Nearby, plenty of mothers and fathers chatted, leaning against their pushchairs, in which their babies were wide awake and babbling. Other parents were holding toddlers who were laughing and pointing at other children who were just ambling in. Waiters set up high chairs, and more than a couple of kids danced between tables. In any number of hot spots—even upmarket places—I saw children, from a few weeks old, being cradled by grandparents, snoozing in their carriers or playing with pieces of bread on wooden tables.
These scenes were jolting when we first moved here. Once upon a time, when motherhood was further off, I wasn’t so tolerant. I cast a stink eye now and then at parents whose misbehaving spawn disrupted my quiet meal. Then I had a child.
In Buenos Aires, the social lives of adults and children blend rather fluidly. Despite the fact that most middle-to upper-class parents have the kind of access to babysitters that many Westerners can only dream of (child care is much cheaper), they don’t hesitate to ditch the nanny and bring the kids along, especially if it’s a family event. Most Argentines—even single and childless folks—don’t seem to think of little ones as a drag in many group settings. On the contrary, they believe children add a certain lightness, humour, and even hope.
I ran this idea by Soledad Olaciregui, a Spanish teacher and the co-owner of a business that helps foreigners understand Argentine culture called Maneras Argentinas (loosely translated: Argentine Ways). She and her business partner had helped me out with a travel guide on the city of Buenos Aires that I put together for National Geographic Traveler. Olaciregui didn’t have children when we first met, but by the time I was inquiring about bedtimes, she was the mother of a ten-month-old girl. She agreed with me that other cultures separate adult and kid time and space a lot more than hers does.
“There are places in the world that let in dogs but not kids! I think in Argentina this would be unthinkable.”
Sure, there are limits. On school nights, a lot of kids stick to a routine, though it tends to skew later than many Westerners could ever accept. Kids don’t go to late-night bars or dance clubs, and they usually don’t attend speeches or formal events. But it’s not uncommon to see a child tagging along with his parents at a rowdy soccer game or a big nighttime show. My friends tell me they saw five-year-old children weeping with joy alongside their parents at the first Rolling Stones concert ever in Buenos Aires in 1995. Some parents even bring their babies to the movies, cradling them with one hand while they reach for popcorn with the other.
Most at-home events—birthday parties, barbecues, and so on—welcome kids; it’s rare to get a no-children-allowed request. (We’ve received invitations like that only from families in which at least one parent is not Argentine.) Weddings, which usually last from 8:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., almost always feature children.
“At our wedding, my niece Catalina, who was five, ate, danced, and had a blast the whole night,” my friend Macarena Byrnes told me. “She only fell asleep—on two chairs pushed together—for about a half hour, and when she woke up she was very angry with everyone because we had let her sleep and she missed out on some of the fun.”
Her son, Bauti, was born a week before Sofia, and we became close as our children grew up together. I’d always been madly envious of the sleep habits of her son: he went to bed by himself without fail by eight o’clock, slept through the night, and woke around eight the next morning. He took naps that could last from two to four hours. Bauti was a powerhouse, incredibly coordinated and strong, a nonstop ball of energy; he played hard and slept hard.
Although Bauti was a master at his routine, Byrnes didn’t worry about breaking it on nights when he wasn’t going to school in the morning.
“Everyone, from the day we are born, is used to going to bed late if necessary,” she said. She’s married to an American, so she knows how early life can be in the States. When she first visited her in-laws in Maryland, she was astounded that some Americans actually eat at 5:00 p.m., an hour at which most Argentines have just begun to sip their afternoon cup of tea.
That is not to say all Argentine parents keep their kids out late; some subscribe to an earlier routine. Still, most families I’ve met think spending quality time with relatives and friends is more important than getting their kid to bed at the same time, in the same place every night.
Juana Lugano, who likes to call herself my Argentine mother, often invites my family to join her own children and grandchildren for their almost weekly dinner at her apartment on the weekend. (It’s where we have spent two of the last three Christmas Eves.) The dinners never get started before nine o’clock. More than once she’s bumped the start time up to eight thirty to accommodate our American preference to eat and sleep earlier. (Her children hardly ever show up before nine.) Even she admits that the kids can become “terrors” if it gets too late.
“But it would be such a shame if the children did not share these moments with their family,” she said.
Mateo Acosta is five years old and has dewy, brown Paul McCartney eyes, with lashes that extend for miles. From his mum he inherited his straight hair, from his dad, his love of yerba maté, and from his country, he got his daily routine.
Like many Argentine children, Mateo goes to bed late and wakes up late. When he was very young, his mother, Mariana Garcia (a reporter), and his father, Martin Acosta (a photographer), started their jobs at the largest newspaper in Argentina at around noon and stayed until at least eight or nine, while a nanny cared for their son.
As a toddler, Mateo would often wait until his parents got home to go to sleep, and then they ate, played, and read together. His parents never forced him straight into bed. Instead, they chose to linger, wanting this to be an intimate time when Mateo “could enjoy Mama and Papa,” Garcia said. She often stayed with him—cribs in Argentina are often large enough to fit a small adult—until he fell asleep, usually around 10:00 p.m. or later.
“The truth is that we never had an overly rigorous method to teach him to sleep,” Garcia said. She never had hang-ups about his nighttime waking or whether or not Mateo should be falling asleep in her arms. If he wanted to be in their bed, they let him. Their view was that it mattered less where everybody was sleeping, as long as everyone was getting a good night’s sleep. That way, the whole family was happier.
Going out was simply part of the happiness equation. On evenings that were obviously meant for adults—Argentine parents do welcome those childless breaks, too—they would take turns babysitting or arrange for their son to stay with a nanny or his grandparents. But often he tagged along with his mum and dad. We got to know Mateo pretty well, at birthday parties, parrillas, and Korean and Chinese restaurants. He’s come to our apartment for curry dinners, Halloween, and Chinese New Year parties. His parents would take turns entertaining him, or friends carried him around, tickled him and told him stories. He ate what the adults ate, from morcilla (blood sausage) to sushi. We all went to a party on my birthday when Mateo was about two, and he played with the breadsticks, olives, and dips on the coffee table most of the night. No one minded. My husband and I watched him evolve from a podgy baby who fell asleep in his baby carrier while his parents sipped wine and talked politics, to the boy who watched Shrek 2 on my iMac and could describe in detail each character’s peculiar traits.
“We tried to find an equilibrium between our own routines and Mateo’s life,” Garcia said when I told her how I was impressed with the fluidity in which she and Acosta seemed to integrate their son in their social lives.
“It is not easy,” Acosta once warned me. They, like all parents, made sacrifices. They didn’t go out when their son was tired or sick or when they themselves didn’t have the energy to chase him around. They didn’t see their single friends as much, and they couldn’t go out on a whim. Mateo had some meltdowns; I’ve seen
him throw tantrums in restaurant booths and throw chopsticks at his mum. But in Buenos Aires, even if a child has a tantrum in a public place, almost no one glares. In fact, fellow customers, waiters, or restaurant owners might come over and help. The payoff to this public suffering is that your child spends more time with you and your family, and you can continue to see your friends more than once in a while (which helps you stay sane).
“In general, it seems to me that parents go everywhere with their babies,” said Garcia. “Later, there’s a period of time (during toddler-hood) when the kids briefly turn into savages and you have to lay off for a while. But then they return to being domesticated, and you can start going out again.”
Mateo had just had his fifth birthday when I interviewed his mother, and she told me she adored going on “dates” with him. He sat properly, ate, and chatted about his day at school.
“I love it. It’s just barbaro,” she said, using a common Argentine term for “fabulous.” Garcia and Acosta stuck to a 10:00 p.m. bedtime on weeknights once he started infant school; tardiness is not taken as lightly as it is in preschool. Students and parents are held accountable when they show up even five minutes after start time. Still, during the weekends and summer holidays, Mateo’s mum relaxes and allows him to stay up. “Yesterday, for example, we went to my mother’s house and we left at midnight,” Garcia said. “He went home and slept like a baby.”
This is not to say that Mateo is a perfect sleeper. Garcia quipped, “Any parent who says their kid sleeps all night, every night, is lying.” She simply expected her child to adapt to her schedule, just as she adapted to his.
That simple idea appealed to me, though it was easier said than done. Not getting enough or not even close to enough sleep, is one of the most vexing problems of parenthood. It takes a lot of experimenting to find the right balance for each child in each family. I was embracing the Argentine way to some extent but I still wondered if it was better for my social calendar than it was for my daughter’s health.
Western sleep experts and parents have made their matter-of-fact preference more than clear: routines are key, and the earlier the better, for children and for parents. Little room is made for exceptions. A cultural norm has turned into a rule. Parents who admit to letting their child stay up often do it with a lot of explanations, apologies, and guilt.
Yet if you dig a little, you will find that many child development experts will admit there is nothing intrinsically wrong with setting later bedtimes, if children make up for it somewhere: sleeping in, taking naps, and so on.
“As long as they’re getting enough sleep, it doesn’t make too much difference,” Richard Ferber, sleep guru and director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, told the New York Times. The problem, some experts say, is when parents break those routines, which Argentines do on a regular basis.
I called the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C., to quiz their experts on what I was experiencing in Argentina. I half expected to get a stern verbal thrashing, because I was clearly not always heeding their advice about enforcing a consistent bedtime and ensuring quiet time every evening that was “free of loud music and bright lighting.” The organization—dedicated to improving the quality of life for Americans who suffer from sleep problems—hooked me up with one of its board members, College of the Holy Cross professor Amy Wolfson, author of The Woman’s Book of Sleep. Wolfson listened thoughtfully as I described the Buenos Aires night scene over the phone.
“I’d hate to judge a culture,” Wolfson said immediately. She wondered if Argentines and their bodies could be more used to this lifestyle. Scientists have found that our circadian rhythms— the biological clock that regulates how our body functions—are adaptable; years of late-night reveling may have produced people who can thrive later with fewer ill effects.
Still, Wolfson said that by and large, erratic sleeping habits— “falling asleep in a restaurant, sleeping in a stroller [pushchair], and then sleeping in the car, waking up and falling asleep, waking up and falling asleep”—are not a good idea for anyone. Inconsistent patterns can lead to bad habits and possibly sleep deprivation and disorders, and scientists have shown that children (and adults) need a certain amount of uninterrupted sleep for body and mental development.
“It’s definitely better to have more consistent schedules,” Wolfson said. “Does that mean that it’s terrible to let your kids stay up once in a while or you should be stressed about it? No. There’s a happy medium. But I think regularly depriving a child of sleep is not a good thing.”
Some Argentine doctors aren’t big fans of their own culture’s habits either, though they are more willing to make exceptions for the social reality of the families they treat. During one of Sofia’s checkups, I asked her paediatrician, Oscar Albanese, for his opinion on the impact of late nights on kids.
“Every place has their customs and habits,” he told me. “This happens to be a bad one. Too many parents let their littlest ones stay up well past midnight too often,” he said. The danger comes when kids end up exhausted and never make up for the loss.
Any parent knows what a nightmare it can be to deal with a tired, grumpy child. Research has shown that the long-term impact of chronic sleep deprivation can be serious. Lack of sleep has been identified as a factor in behaviour problems, tantrums, hyperactivity, and poor performance in school. Some scientists theorize that sleep problems in the formative years can lead to permanent brain changes that can impact cognitive functions. But does sleep have to occur in a certain way, in exact amounts, at the same time and place to be healthy?
Despite their late nights, families in Buenos Aires seem to make up at least some sleep in the morning. I’m constantly blown away when friends tell me that their toddlers usually snooze until nine or ten o’clock in the morning and complain when little ones wake up at an outrageous seven thirty. Society doesn’t get moving until around eight, long after many Westerners would have already hit the gym, showered, and made their way to work. I feel like I’m the only crazy wandering the streets if I head out for a postdawn jog. Gyms don’t open before seven, and most breakfast spots start pouring coffee at eight at the earliest. Morning nurseries don’t open their doors until nine o’clock, about an hour or so later than your average American or European school, and many families still prefer to send their kids to nursery during the afternoon. If we take Sofia to the playground before ten on a Saturday morning, we are usually the only ones there.
My paediatrician told me he advises parents to get their kids to bed by 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., and encourage them to sleep until at least 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. (This was a relief to me, given that this was approximately the schedule Sofia kept.) He admitted, however, that meeting that ideal in the reality of Buenos Aires can be a tall order.
“So often the way we sleep depends on the light, the climate, the way people have grown up,” he said. “Those things are hard to change.”
Sleep in the real world. This idea intrigued me and got to the heart of my questions. Western scientists have told us that adults need seven or eight hours of sleep during the course of a twenty-four-hour period, and toddlers should get more, eleven to fifteen hours between nighttime sleep and naps. So what happens when we start moulding that biological need to our own cultural and social behaviours and desires? Industrialized nations such as the United States and England embraced the eight-hour early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine (preferably in nice plush beds) in order to accommodate a more productive workday and life. In places such as Argentina, Spain, and Egypt, families prefer to stay up later, enjoying dinner during the cooler hours, and perhaps sneaking a nap during the hot daytime hours. In African tribes such as the !Kung and the Efe, people tend to fall in and out of sleep all night, socializing, caring for babies, tending fires, and shooing away predators. Do we really know which models are better and which are worse?
That’s one of the questions asked by journalist Jeff Warren in his exploration of human consciousness, Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness. After talking to various experts and even experimenting with different sleeping methods, he told me that he came to this conclusion: “There are no ideal sleep patterns. When you dig around you find there are many different flavours of sleep.”
But, he continued, “the ‘ideal’ distinction is important. I actually think there are ‘better’ sleep patterns in terms of patterns that are more suitable for different cultures. And if you’re not getting a certain amount of sleep you will definitely feel it. The key is realizing you can get these hours in many different ways.”
Scientists have obsessed over sleep, sliced and diced it in all kinds of laboratory settings to figure out how much we need and when, and why we can’t seem to get enough. But as Wolfson and anthropologist Carol Worthman will tell you, not many scientists have looked at sleep from a non-Western cultural vantage point in homes and camps versus laboratories.
Piqued by this gaping omission, Worthman, a professor at Emory University, did just that, digging through more than fifty years of research to compare the sleeping habits of several cultures, ranging from the Hiwi tribe in southern Venezuela to the Gabra nomadic people who live in a rocky desert on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, and citizens of modern-day Egypt and America.
Worthman discovered that many, if not most, people blend fluidly their social and their sleep universes. In many cultures, adults and children rarely, if ever, sleep alone. They are in huts, tents, mats, crowded apartments, cuddled up with their parents, sisters, brothers, and the family dog (cat, chicken, etc.). People fall in and out of sleep during campfire talks, nighttime religious rituals, and family parties.
“In our culture, quality sleep is going into a dark room that is totally quiet, lying down, falling asleep, doing that for eight hours, and then getting up again,” Worthman told the New York Times Magazine. “But that is not how much of the world has slept in the past or even sleeps today.”
The Efe or the !Kung African tribes “stay up as long as something interesting—a conversation, music, dance—is happening and they participate; then they go to sleep when they feel like it,” Worthman and Melissa Melby wrote in “Toward a Comparative Ecology of Human Sleep,” featured in a book on adolescent sleep. “Additionally, no one, including children, is told to go to bed, and individuals of any age may nod off amid ongoing social intercourse and fade in and out of sleep during nighttime social activities.” The Balinese, who practise nighttime religious rituals, always bring their children along, where they might fall asleep at will. (I thought of all the kids in Buenos Aires who are used to falling asleep in random places; generations of children have snoozed on chairs pushed together in busy restaurants or on sofa cushions at parties.) This way contrasts greatly with the advice that many Western sleep experts give: that you should contain your children’s sleep and that they always should be put to bed in the same quiet space.
“American parents put their infants to sleep under conditions of minimal sensory load, but later expect their children to titrate arousal and focus attention appropriately in a world with high sensory loads and heavy competing demands for attention,” she observed.
Worthman and other scientists have wondered if industrialized society’s attempts to force sleep into an eight-hour block has contributed to sleep disorders in adults and children alike. Some scientists believe that segmented sleep—a pattern that consists of two or more periods of sleep and “peaceful” wakefulness—is the natural way for humans. (Babies often sleep this way.) Some studies have shown that segmented sleep can leave people more alert.
“Sleep can be considered a biologically driven behaviour of the child that is strongly shaped and interpreted by cultural values and beliefs of the parents,” wrote Dr. Oskar Jenni and Bonnie O’Connor in an article on culture and sleep for Pediatrics in 2005.
“It is important to note that many ‘problems’ with sleep during childhood, such as difficulties falling asleep alone or waking at night and seeking parental attention, are based on culturally constructed definitions and expectations and are not necessarily rooted in sleep biology,” they wrote. They point to research that shows people in Japan (in contrast to the United States and other Western countries) don’t worry about insomnia and rarely consult doctors about it as a problem. Italian parents reported it “customary and preferable to have infants sleep in their rooms with them irrespective of the availability of separate rooms, and considered the American norm of putting children to bed in separate rooms to be ‘unkind,’ ” they wrote.
“Clearly, there is a need to understand better the effects of cultural norms on children’s sleep behaviour and their interplay with biology. Such an understanding is fundamental to comprehending what constitutes a sleep problem, when and for whom, how best to approach it, and perhaps even to work to modify some cultural standards and practices as a means of improving quality of life for children and families.”
While there are minimal biological sleep requirements for children, Jenni and O’Connor asked: “Are the cultural standards provided by our own society optimal for the development of our children? The large diversity ofchildren’s sleep behaviours among societies and cultures may in fact indicate that an ‘optimal cultural standard’ does not exist.”
In other words, we just don’t know enough to say which way is better. Could learning to sleep amid noise and chaos have developmental advantages?
For my own child’s sake, at least, I liked to think that might be true.
Excerpted from How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood. Copyright © 2013 by Mei-Ling Hopgood.
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