Cultural Differences in Baby and Toddler Sleep

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; not only do we work with families from around the world, but a few of our employees have even worked from their homes overseas!

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 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 U.S., 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 American 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.

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