Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Is She A Good Baby? Part 1: Sleep

Having kids who LOVE to play in the pool all day long lately has given me a bit more time for reading.  Lately I've been working on finishing an intriguing book that I started quite some time ago - "Our Babies, Ourselves".

It is an anthropological and biological look at babies.  How are babies around the world parented and why?  Is there a biological foundation for these parenting techniques or are they primarily cultural?

I encourage everyone to read the book. It's fascinating. But I'll also share some of the info and insights with you here in my new series "Is She A Good Baby?".

Whenever you find moms trying to get to know each other and make small talk, at least around here, usually sooner than later someone asks, "Is she a good baby?"  I always answer "yes", but really, what am I supposed to say? 

"No, I'm pretty sure she's the Antichrist, but we love her anyways."

One of the most enlightening thing I've learned in reading this book is that each culture (and each parent) defines their own parental goals, whether consciously or not, and that has a big effect on how they parent. 

It also colors that question "Is she a good baby?"  What constitutes a "good baby"?  That depends on what your goals are.

Bad Baby!  You should be in a crib!
In the United States, the one great overriding parental goal seems to be independence.  We highly value independence (Happy Belated Independence Day!).  To be dependent is seen as a bad thing.  We use terms like clingy, momma's boy, and needy to shame dependence.  In the sleep department, a "good" baby is one that goes to sleep in a separate room for the parents, without much parental involvement, and stays asleep for eight or more hours.  A "bad" baby or a "difficult" baby is one who wakes frequently during the night and can't get back to sleep without some kind of help from the parents.  They often refuse to sleep alone or have a tough time doing so.

If you place a very high value on independence and self-reliance, then this may be a reasonable way of looking at things.  A baby who can sleep alone and self soothe at night is well on the road to independence.  But I think it is interesting to note that not everyone has those goals for their children.  In fact, in many cultures, they are aiming for something quite different.  Group cohesiveness, familial closeness, and interdependence are the main goals elsewhere in the world.

Bad Baby!  How is your mother ever going to get any
blogging done if you don't sleep in your crib?
In Western society, babies are seen as very dependent beings who need to be taught how to do things for themselves and by themselves.  In Japan, babies are seen as separate beings who need to be brought deeper into family life and encouraged to become part of the group.  So with that goal in mind, it is no surprise that sleeping alone isn't a high priority for them.  Most Japanese babies sleep with their mothers.  Older children often sleep with fathers or grandparents.  They believe this fosters a sense of security and confidence that will help the children be more capable in the long run.

Still other cultures see babyhood as a time to simply be cared for.  They don't worry too much about "the long run" and save their teaching and training for childhood.  Babies, to them, are there to be kept safe and happy until they are old enough to start participating in family life.  These babies are kept close at all times (the better to care for them) including nighttime.

But what about the babies themselves?  What do the babies think?

Dangit Baby, that's not your crib either! 
Do you even have a crib?
There is some evidence, and it makes sense if you think about it, that babies' bodies are set up to live in a more traditional tribal culture.  One where babyhood is a pretty dangerous time and the primary goal in infancy is care and protection.  One where they don't have 3,000 square foot homes with five bedrooms to tuck the baby into.  Societies and cultures change very quickly, but human biology takes longer to catch up.  Babies are still biologically set up to be in almost constant contact with a caregiver.  Spending hours and hours all alone at night, while they can do it, is not what they're made for. 

So, from the mainstream American perspective, Ivy is not a very good baby.  She usually needs someone to fall asleep with her, and she prefers to nurse to sleep if she can.  She wakes up several times throughout the night to nurse.  If you're shooting for independence, that definitely sounds like a very difficult baby.  If you're trotting down the hall to soothe the baby in her crib several times a night - whew!  But that's not what we're doing.  Ivy sleeps in our bed.  Well, I should say my bed.  When the temps hit the 90's and our second floor bedroom got pretty hot and sticky (heat rises, who knew?) he found somewhere to sleep that had a little less body heat going on.  And when she wakes up at night, I hardly wake up to nurse her and I certainly don't GET up.

In the past, that had been kind of bothersome for me.  I wondered WHEN oh WHEN was she going to sleep through the night?  When would I be able to just lay her down and leave and not have to lay down with her to get her to sleep?

But now that I'm thinking about it more, I'm not sure that I want independence to be my primary parenting goal.  Frankly I think independence is overrated.  It just makes everyone work harder.  It takes a village, you know?  There's nothing wrong with depending on your village if your village is dependable.  And I think that's the message I'm sending Ivy when I let her sleep with me - I'm dependable and I'm here for you.

I generally prefer to sleep alone and I get better sleep that way, but that's just because that's what I'm used to.  That's how I was raised (how most of us Americans were raised).  To sleep alone in a dark and quiet room.  But as the months go on, I'm getting more and more used to Ivy being in bed with me.  It's not so bothersome anymore.  And last night I had a sort of epiphany.  Ivy woke up to nurse and instead of being mildly irritated, I just snuggled her in close and enjoyed her. 

Hmmm, you may be a "Bad" Baby, but you do
seem to get an awful lot of sleeping done...
I let go of my ideas of what she "ought" to be doing at this age, how she "should" be sleeping.  She doesn't HAVE to go to sleep at a "bedtime".  Not all cultures have separate bedtimes for children and adults.  She doesn't have to sleep alone.  Most toddlers in the world don't sleep alone.  She doesn't have to sleep all night without waking (and neither do I).  The amount of time spent in deep sleep does not equate with a feeling of sleep satisfaction.
I pushed aside thoughts of how I myself "should" be sleeping.  I don't HAVE to get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep to be well rested.  In fact, humans are naturally biphasal sleepers, so the idea of getting all your sleep in one big unbroken chunk at night is a cultural construct.  I don't have to be sleeping snuggled up to my husband.  The married couple as the all-important center of the nuclear household, with the children peripheral or subordinate to that, is another Western idea as well.

With all of those societal impositions out of the way, Ivy and I both woke up well rested and in giggly spirits.  Part of my problem with cosleeping was all those unacknowledged little beliefs I had floating around in my head about what was "the right way".  I let myself feel guilty, frustrated, incompetent, and dissatisfied because of what my culture was whispering in my ear.

Once I realized that, I felt so much better.  I enjoyed my night and the thought of how different it probably was from how the neighbor's family was sleeping.  Because if you know me at all, you know that I'm the last person to feel bound to abide by what society says I ought to do.

1 comment:

  1. love it! I cringe (probably visibly) when someone asks, is he a good baby- does he sleep through the night? Uh, yes, he's a good baby, and no, he doesn't sleep through the night. We co-sleep and I've always found it to be a great relief knowing that I'm never going to have to spend time fighting my baby on going to be bed at night, we'll simply crawl in bed together, nurse, and sleep. And he'll nurse at night, and I will be vaguely aware of it.


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