Cultural Differences in Baby and Toddler Sleep

Here at the Baby Sleep Site™, we take great pride in the fact that we’re an international business. We’ve worked with families from across the globe in an effort to get a better night’s sleep. Geography has never been a barrier for us; in fact, two of our sleep consultants are living internationally themselves! Melissa Kenzig splits her time between the U.S. and France, and Amy Bryant currently calls Germany home. And, both know a thing or two about cultural differences regarding baby and toddler sleep!

After years spent helping families from all over the world, one of the things we’ve learned is that cultural differences play a big role in sleep training. In this article, we’ll take a look at how different cultures view and handle co-sleeping, naps, bedtimes, maternity leave, and sleep training, to name a few. Why? Not to divide us parents, but to share with you that if you are not raising your baby like the “norm” in your own country, chances are that it’s the “norm” somewhere and you’re not alone!

Cultural Differences and Baby Sleep

Bedtime

Bedtime varies greatly from country to country, we’ve learned. Here in the U.S., it seems standard to put young children (especially babies) to bed early — around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., and sometimes even 6:00 p.m. ala Weissbluth. Many of our American clients also view bedtime as “fixed” — that is, it happens around the same time every night.

Contrast this with some of our European and Asian clients, who routinely put their babies and toddlers to bed quite “late” — around 10 or 11 p.m. Many of these clients have told us that late bedtimes are quite normal in their countries; parents want to spend time with the children after work, so bedtime gets pushed back to create more family time. Many times, this also means bedtime is a more fluid, less fixed time. The idea that bedtime has to (or should) happen at the same time each night isn’t nearly as prevalent in some countries as it is in the U.S.

Nicole’s Note:
“I have often wondered how my son would have fared in a European country with a late bedtime. But, one thing we’ve seen is that we are able to help most families within the parameters of their family structure and needs. As long as your baby is getting enough sleep, that is usually all that matters. Late bedtimes generally mean later wake-up time (with the right schedule!), so there is a balance.”

Co-Sleeping

In the Western world, co-sleeping isn’t exactly the norm. Here in the West, we tend to sleep our babies in cribs, in a separate nursery. Room-sharing is still popular in the first 6 months or so, but other forms of co-sleeping (like co-sleeping long-term, or bed-sharing) are still more on the rare side among Western moms.

In countries around the world, however, this isn’t the case. For example, in many countries, parents and children share the same bed for several years. This is the case in many Asian countries — babies sleep with their parents until they’re toddlers, and at that point, they move to their own small bed near their parents’ bed.

It’s also standard practice in some countries to sleep your baby in the same bed as an extended family member (like a grandmother, or an aunt.) This is particularly true for countries in which living with extended family under the same roof is the norm.

Nicole’s Note:
“One important difference when it comes to co-sleeping across the globe is the bed that the parents sleep in. It is important to bed share SAFELY! American beds are different (read: fluffy, soft, pillow-top, etc.) than others’. “

Naps and Schedules

In the U.S. and some other Western countries, many parents work hard to get their babies on predictable, regular schedules. And there’s a lot to be said for establishing a routine — it often helps regulate a baby’s naptime sleep (and even nighttime sleep!)

However, we’ve found that parents from other countries tend to have a more relaxed, on-the-go mentality when it comes to schedules. In these countries, it’s normal for baby’s sleep schedule to look different from one day to the next. And it’s fine for naps to happen on the go, while mom and dad are out running errands or spending time with friends.

Nicole’s Note:
“No doubt our busy, American lifestyle leads to us being more rigid about scheduling. How else can we make sure the baby is up on time for daycare or we’re at that Gymboree class on time with a happy, content baby? My sons seemed anti-on-the-go and one was afraid he’d miss anything to sleep while out and about, so I definitely don’t know how that would have worked for him! :) It is particularly challenging for our international clients when they have a son like mine, who needs to be home, in bed, to sleep.”

Help With Childcare

This is a big difference we’ve noticed in our work with families from all over the world. In many Western countries, parenting tends to be a fairly isolated affair. It’s a parent’s job to do the work of childrearing, and if the parents happen to need childcare help, they generally have to outsource it (to a daycare provider, for example.)

This is far from the case around the world. In many cultures, the extended family takes an active role in helping to raise children. Sometimes, family members all live together under one roof, meaning that grandma takes the night shift with the baby as often as mom does.

What’s more, in some countries, middle-class families are able to hire house help, like nannies or maids. This provides parents with extra help as well — it isn’t always mom or dad who’s feeding and changing and cleaning up after and waking with the baby.

Maternity Leaves

This is such an interesting phenomenon, and it’s one that we’ve seen come up again and again when we work with international parents. Here in the West, maternity leaves are often woefully short (moms are lucky to get 12 weeks), and they’re often unpaid.

Contrast that with countries around the world that mandate lengthy, paid maternity leaves. In Croatia, Denmark, Serbia, and the U.K., for example, maternity leave is a full year long, and mom receives 90-100% of her normal working wage.

The implications of this are fairly obvious. It’s no wonder that many of us Western parents are quick to get our babies on a sleep schedule, and to start sleep training early — we need our babies to nap well and to sleep through the night because we have to go back to work! Many of our international clients, however, don’t face this same pressure — their maternity leaves tend to be longer, so (in general) they’re more relaxed about their babies’ sleep habits, especially when their babies’ are very young. Having said this, we do not believe At-Home Parents have it easy, either.

(Note: to see a side-by-side comparison of maternity leaves around the world, organized by country, take a look at this helpful Huffingtonpost.com article.)

Sleep Training

The different cultural perceptions of sleep training are fascinating to us here at the Baby Sleep Site™. In fact, if we were writing this for a different audience, we may even have to define the phrase “sleep training”, since it’s unheard of in some countries around the world!

In the West, we’ve become fairly accustomed to the concept of sleep training. The idea that some parents take steps to train, or to teach, their babies to sleep is understood and accepted (even if not every Western parent would agree with some of the practices associated with sleep training, like cry it out methods.)

However, in other countries around the world, the idea of “teaching” a baby to sleep is a foreign one. Many international parents report that in their home countries, allowing a baby to cry, even for a moment, is considered cruel and unnatural. Instead, it’s the expectation that babies will have night-wakings and the family’s “village” will help, whether it means getting up with the baby at night or allow Mom to nap during the day.

Nicole’s Note:
“We are working with more and more international clients who want something different than their surrounding culture. They feel isolated and alone and we try to be there for them. It’s not easy to have a challenging sleeper, wherever you are!”

A General, Respectful Overview

This isn’t meant to be an authoritative account on cultural differences and baby sleep. Rather, we’ve tried to give you a general glimpse at how the perceptions and practices surrounding baby sleep vary from country to country.

And we’re not presenting these differences to judge parents from other cultures — not at all! We believe that every baby and every situation is unique; we also believe that we have a lot to learn from each other. Educating yourself about sleep norms around the world is one more way you can help your own baby or toddler along the road to better sleep.

What are your thoughts on some of these differences? Be respectful, please! And to our international readers: anything to add? Chime in, and we’ll update the article with your feedback!

Expectations and practices regarding baby and toddler sleep may change from country to country, but sleep deprivation crosses all borders! If you’re an exhausted parent, please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of 5 (tear-free) Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night, our e-Book with tear-free tips to help your baby sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.


advertisement

Comments

  1. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Amy — thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Katka says

    I am from Slovakia (Central Europe) and I guess we are somewhere in between on many of these points. Bedtime si early – around 7pm. Naps are supposed to be fairly regular, I think most people try to put their baby down at the same time every day and few would compromise their schedule for errands or an outing. I think moms try to have a predictable schedule for their baby in general.
    Babies are expected to sleep in their cribs but the crib is in the parents’ room and stays there for quite some time (depending on the family up to 2 years). I think very few people put their newborn to another room. We are also fans of swaddling. I’m not sure about co-sleeping. I think many co-sleepers do so out of necessity, not out of conviction. It’s also normal for siblings to share bedroom.

    Now, our maternity leave will probably shock you :). All together it’s 3 years. It’s 8 months of maternity leave and the rest is parental leave where you don’t get much money but you get to stay home with your child. Your employer must keep a job for you (albeit not the same position you held before). It’s still the norm although more and more women return to work earlier. Most moms would probably cringe at the thought of leaving their child before their 1st birthday and the idea of returning to work after just 12 or 16 weeks is simply shocking and absurd to a Slovak :) (not passing judgment, just describing the status quo). It simply isn’t done around here.
    Crying it out depends on the family. Some would never let their baby cry and some say if he is fed, clean diaper, etc, let him cry. It really depends.

  3. Traci says

    Just about at the end of my rope. Daylight savings time is KILLING us over here. My daughter, Gabriel, used to sleep so well. We Would put her to bed at 6:45 and she’d be asleep by 7. Then she’d wake at 7 am. Well during daylight savings, she also started growing in her 1 year molars, and hit a sleep regression. We’ve now been having problems since before daylight savings. She used to nap for 2 hours in the morning, and at least an hour in the afternoon. Now she wakes almost consistently before 6, most times as early as 5 am. She used to take a good nap in the morning, and then fight the afternoon nap. Now, she fights both naps, and I’m lucky to get a total nap of 1 hour. She still goes to bed well at night, but again, she wakes early. I don’t know if I should push her bedtime back a little, or just keep soldiering on. It’s been nearly 2 months, and it’s making me bitter in the mornings because I Can’t get the rest I need anymore, and it was such a sudden change. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know if I should transition her to one nap a day, and see if she does better. But my angel baby that always slept so well and never gave me any problems, turned into a nightmare when it comes to sleeping. Sometimes she whimpers in her sleep all night. Any ideas? Because I’m about to go nuts!

  4. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Katka — thanks for sharing these points! Always helpful (and insightful) to know how moms from around the world handle the challenges of baby and toddler sleep.

    And wow — 3 years!! I think moms here in the U.S. would probably pass out from shock if they knew that moms in Slovakia were getting 3 years of leave! In the U.S., 12-16 weeks of maternity leave is on the longer side; I think 6-8 weeks is probably more standard. Hardly any time at all, compared to yours. ;)

    Thanks for commenting, Katka!

  5. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Traci — sorry you’re struggling! DST can be so hard on schedules. Let me ask — how old is Gabriel?

  6. Traci says

    She is 1 year old as of November 19th.

  7. Traci says

    She turned a year old on November 19th.

  8. alice says

    Interesting article and comments indeed. I am a 2nd generation asian married to a caucasian. We live in Canada with our 2.5 yr old daughter. Prior to my daughter’s birth, I thought it would be no big deal to conform to the north american norm – sleep in separate crib/room and have regular nap/sleep times. Maybe we’re big softies but once she came out, it was instinctive to respond immediately to her cries – so much so that co-sleeping in the same bed became the norm in our house – as well as having late bedtimes and variable nap times…all the things I didn’t think I would do! Of course I don’t resent it at all – in fact, both my husband and I love it (the co-sleeping that is, not the late bedtimes!).

    I don’t know however, if I was more permissive because of my cultural background – my parents tell me (repeatedly and proudly) that we had no fixed bed time/nap time and we all slept in the same room – on the floor with special blankets/mats (asian style) until my brother and I were both 4/5 yrs old. In fact, i recall as a young girl, having friends tell me that they had to stop doing something or go home etc because it was bedtime, and I also recall thinking how odd that was, what if you weren’t tired yet? haha!

    With my daughter now, I do try to maintain some semblence of a routine, even if times are not exactly rigid but that is about it for me. We never did sleep train her so it was tough to keep exact hours. She has always been a late riser and late sleeper. I’m talking about waking up around 10am and bedtimes were between 9:30pm-2am (9:30pm if no nap, 1-2am if she had a 2hr nap – yikes!). Thank GOD she has finally dropped her nap! (just happened last week)

    Our family hours (aka late sleeping) and sleeping arrangement were not established without careful thought and we (including our daughter) are quite happy with it, however I do find that I’m quite embarrassed/sheepish when I tell people about our hours or sleeping arrangement – which reflects the pressures/guilt that can arise from deviating from the cultural norm.

    Thank you for your enlightening perspective on sleep in different cultures. I do agree that getting enough sleep is important for the baby, however WHEN they sleep is a societal construct, albeit understandably so, given all the other pressures on parents; and that the 7pm bedtime, 7am wake time is not necessarily the single solution for all babies!! (and no I don’t ‘necessarily think your website is saying that)

    Thanks for reading my epic comment!

  9. Emily DeJeu says

    @ alice — No worries; I enjoyed your epic comment! Thanks for sharing so honestly and openly about your mixed feelings regarding your daughter’s sleeping habits. You speak with a lot of wisdom here, and your words are definitely going to be encouraging to other parents!

    Thanks so much for commenting, Alice! :)

  10. Traci says

    It is absolutely amazing to me how much a toy could affect sleep. My 12 month old daughter lost her favorite Beanie baby cat yesterday afternoon. She cried all day, asking for her “kee-kaa”. She finally got so tired from crying that she laid herself down in the floor and went to sleep for an extra nap. This put her to bed later than usual. However, she is still asleep at 8:30 those morning, when she usually wakes at 6:30….so That’s kind of nice. We are still hoping, however, that the cat will turn up at Walmart and they will Call saying they’ve found it. The cat has sentimental value. When I was 11, my dad retired from the Navy, and we moved all the way from Virginia to Texas, and the last day that I saw her, my best friend Kayce gave me her favorite Beanie baby cat. I’ve had that cat since 2001. I really hope we find it.

  11. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Traci — I hope so, too! All 3 of my kids have a special comfort object, and we’ve misplaced them more than once. Always very, very stressful.

    Hope it finds its way home soon!