Although it’s true that we are are a singular species of Earthlings formed of the same biological matter, we are still shaped by cultural and geographic differences, especially when it comes to parenting. And while there are (at least) a zillion-and-one aspects that we could examine in terms of cross-cultural chasms/crossovers when it comes to the rearing of our littles, let us focus our attention on that most confounding of parental riddles—bedtime—while exploring how folks around the world put their kiddos to sleep.
What time is bedtime?
Let’s start with the basics, as in when we’re putting our babes to bed. Psychologist Jodi Mindell, PhD, studied over 28,000 infants and toddlers in 17 different countries and concluded that global bedtimes are (pun intended) all over the map. Whereas American kids are turning in—on average—around 8:30 p.m., Kiwi kids hit New Zealand’s proverbial hay anywhere between 7:30 and 10:45 p.m. But, that’s almost 11 o’clock! I can hear the early-to-bed, early-to-rise camp crying. And while that’s true, 10:45 is still the outside edge of a rather spacious range. Parents in many Asian countries, on the other hand, are putting kids to sleep around 9:30 p.m., on average, with kids in Hong Kong settling in as late as 10:30 p.m. In another bedtime study, titled “Sleep Patterns Among South Korean Infants and Toddlers: Global Comparison,” Mindell reported that “children from predominantly Asian contexts had significantly later bedtimes [and] shorter sleep duration.” Not compared with the Spanish, though. Maybe it’s the siestas, but parents in Spain—and Southern Europe in general—tend to put their kids to sleep after their notoriously late dinners—around 10 p.m. According to journalist Amy Choi, Spanish parents are “horrified at the concept” of removing children from the hustle and bustle of late-night family life to fall asleep alone in a dark room. One Spanish mother, tired of the criticism she receives from her UK pals for putting her 5-month-old to bed around 10, tells HealthyWay, “You could equally ask…why the British insist on getting their children into bed in the middle of the afternoon (because that’s how 6:30/7 is perceived by us!), and then are surprised when said children wake up at 5 a.m.” She has a point…
In her book The Secret Life of Sleep, Kat Duff writes about the Southern European propensity for including children in late-night activities. Little ones in Greece, Spain, and Italy generally accompany their parents to late dinners and post-mealtime gatherings, simply falling asleep whenever and wherever they do—in laps or in corners—instead of at pre-established bedtimes. Same goes in Bali, as well as in parts of the Yucatan, where children are passed among a rotating bevy of relatives, neighbors, and caretakers throughout the evening’s activities, while they doze, wake, and then doze again. It’s a totally different approach from that of the Dutch, who dig regimented sleep routines as much as Americans do. While order and time specifications vary, bedtime protocols (in parts of the world where they’re actually favored) generally include eating and bathing (or the reverse), followed by story time and lullabies, then lights out. “Rhythm is super important,” emphasizes New Mexico–based parenting coach Michele Worstell, who favors the dinner, bath, bedtime story trifecta of sleepy-time magic. Christiane Ashline, a healer with spiritual leanings, does her own variation but adds lavender oil to the bath and affixes “a plant-dyed lampshade for story time” before reciting a prayer and turning all the house lights off, which puts the whole family to sleep at the same time. Along with prayers and affirmations, lots of American moms are now relying on guided meditations and mindfulness apps to help with the bedtime situation. “My kids both [use] the app Headspace before bed,” says Wyoming-based entrepreneur/mom Patty Triplett West. “They love it.” And while South African parents recognize bedtime rituals such as bathing as both wonderful and effective, the Cape Town water situation makes nightly bath routines prohibitive. “Unfortunately with the tight water restrictions in Cape Town, [nightly bathing] is not always possible,” says South Africa–based parenting coach Celeste Rushby. “Most families are just top-and-tailing for one to two nights between the nights of bathing.” Sometimes geographic parenting trends have little to do with perspective or tradition, and everything to do with environmental living conditions like this one.
And down will come baby…
Whether logged with a red “x” in the nightly bedtime dossier or whispered while a child is bounced on a knee around a roaring drum circle, lullabies seem to be standard sleepy-time protocol no matter where one goes in the world. As archaeomusicologist Richard Dumbrill said, “Lullabies belong to the instinctive nature of motherhood.” Ranging from the sweet to the sinister, global lullabies imbue the darkness associated with bedtime into the storylines, verily scaring little ones to sleep. Take, for example, the popular Kenyan ditty that warns of babies who cry being eaten by hyenas, or the popular American one brought over from the UK, wherein we sing about rock-a-bye-ing our babies from unstable tree tops that ultimately break.
Spain utilizes its saddest melodies and most melancholy texts to tinge her children’s first slumber.
And then there are the melancholy lullabies, such as a popular one from Iraq that doubles as a funeral dirge and includes the lyric: What a pain in my heart. Oh my son, how I wish to hear from my loved ones. Poet Federico Garcia Lorca spent a good chunk of the 1920s studying Spanish lullabies and concluded that “Spain utilizes its saddest melodies and most melancholy texts to tinge her children’s first slumber.” Despite their varying geographic origins, lullabies all seem to make use of repetition, which contributes to healthy neurological development. According to author and child development expert Sally Goddard Blythe, cross-cultural lullabies also feature similar rhythmic composition patterns, including the favored 6/8 time signature, which lends itself to the rocking that generally accompanies the bedtime sing-along.
…cradle and all
Nurses in Swiss maternity wards put newborns to sleep in Hängematten—rocking, swinging, bouncing hammocks that soothe babies’ nervous systems, which can be a little freaked out after journeying down the birth canal. Hammocks without such fancy names are also favored by parents in Vietnam and parts of Central America, where babies hang above ground next to their parents’ beds. Filipina moms rock their babies to sleep in a rattan cradle called a duyan and then transfer them onto a sleeping mat called a banig once they slip into unconsciousness. In Japan, parents park kiddos on futons or straw mats when it’s time to go to sleep, while Scandinavians favor swaddling their babies tight and then taking them outside for stroller naps. But we’re not talking about naps, are we? Let’s stick with our Northern European friends and home in on the Swedish practice of “buffing,” wherein parents lay babies face down and rhythmically pat their wee little bums until they doze off.
To co-sleep or not to co-sleep.
Co-sleeping is as cross-culturally controversial as it is common. The practice is fairly unquestioned in most of Asia and Africa as well as in parts of Europe, where—as we’ve already determined—routines are shunned as often as beds are shared. “We first came [to Goa] when [my daughter] was 6,” British ex-pat Melanie Cordeaux told me of her family’s move to South India from the UK. “It was very different, as all of our Goan friends were surprised that she slept in her own room and that we put her to bed by 7:30. Their children hadn’t even had supper by then and went to bed much later and slept with them until they were at least 8 years old, perhaps even later.” Let’s add South India to that belated bedtime section, shall we? Co-sleeping is the norm in Japan, where, according to James McKenna, PhD, of the Natural Child Project, “parents (or grandparents) often sleep in proximity with their children until they are teenagers.” This arrangement is referred to as “the river,” wherein the mother and father represent the banks and the child between them represents the water. In Korea, 30 percent of infants and toddlers sleep in their parents’ room, while a whopping 64 percent share their parents’ bed—64 percent! Americans generally shy away from co-sleeping, instead favoring cribs, nurseries, and private rooms indicative of the American allegiance to independence. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages parents from co-sleeping, citing injury risks and accidental suffocation as imminent threats. “Most people I see in every country have a problem breaking the bad habit of lying with their children to get them to fall asleep,” Dubai-based parenting coach Andalene Salvesen told me, pointing rather clearly to her perspective on the co-sleeping situation. “Falling asleep independently was associated with longer nocturnal sleep duration and few nocturnal awakenings,” Mindell wrote in her 2016 global comparison study. “Parents in Australia and New Zealand favor self-soothing and independent sleeping,” she claims. Aussie mama Zoë adheres to this national norm by putting her own daughter down after bath time and then reading to her, singing to her, and “telling her she is the love of my life, kissing her on the head, and then … finally doing some work.” Sounds pretty independent to me. The beauty of this cross-cultural romp through the (literal) world of bedtime strategies is that we get to glimpse the beauty of our diversity and start to recognize that there are as many ways to parent as there are parents.