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Infant Sleep in History and Around the World

Present-day UK sleeping arrangements -- sleeping alone or in pairs in warm, quiet, private rooms with spacious beds -- is a relatively recent historical development. Less than 200 years ago it was the norm, in UK and US households, for mothers and babies, and indeed for whole families, to sleep in close contact with each other. Around the world in non-Western cultures sleep is a social activity that people do in groups. Beds are basic, often on the floor, and pillows are thin or hard, or non-existent! Special rooms for bedrooms, special clothes for sleeping, and separate sleep locations for parents and children became popular as working people began to earn disposable income. As houses and living arrangements changed, so did our sleep behaviour, and our attitudes about infant sleep.

Nowadays parents can feel under pressure to help their babies become independent from an early age. Popular myths suggest 'good' babies sleep through the night, sleep alone, and do not require attention in the night. As a result, parents may try to 'help' their baby 'sleep through' as early as possible. But expecting a human baby to sleep alone, and for prolonged periods, is unrealistic and can be harmful. The mismatch in what today's parents might expect or desire regarding infant sleep, and their baby's biological abilities regarding sleep, can lead to some unnecessary conflicts.

Around the world babies sleep in many different ways. In many places, babies and mothers are in continuous contact, regardless of time of day or night. Babies sleep on the mother's body or close to her, often in some form of carrying device during the day, and in her sleep space at night. Babies fall asleep while their mother works and/or completes her daily activities. These babies do not require silence or darkness to sleep, and they are not expected or 'trained' to conform to a schedule. Within Western societies before the late nineteenth century, mother-infant sleep contact was also the norm, as demonstrated by comments found in physicians' child-rearing guides for mothers.

For more information about biological, cultural and technological factors which affect babies' sleep, visit our Health Professional's Why babies sleep as they do pages.

Last modified: 30th August 2013