When my son was 4 months old, I wrote myself off as a parental failure. Why? I couldn’t get that kid to sleep for anything. The only time he’d drift off was in my arms, and as soon as his back hit any kind of surface, he was up and squalling. Desperate for some kind of rest, I started tucking him in bed with us. (Public service announcement: Co-sleeping should only be done if baby is in his own separate sleep space. Don’t follow my lead.)
I felt like a mediocre mom because I couldn’t just let him cry himself to sleep like many parents could. (It broke my heart!) And I couldn’t manage to trick him into sleeping on his own, as many other moms and dads had mastered. Co-sleeping, for me, was the equivalent of giving up. OK, baby, you win; I lose. Now let’s get some sleep.
If I could go back in time to those trepid early months, there are many things I would do differently. Most importantly, I would give myself permission to embrace whatever techniques worked for me without worrying about what everyone else was doing. It’s in my nature to want to do everything perfectly. I worry every day about whether or not I’m doing things “right,” whether I’m giving my child an advantage with my attempts at perfection or just royally screwing him up. But is there really any one right way to parent?
Here in America, sleep training is a big deal for many parents. I’ve never been a fan, so I’m impressed with the French, who manage to avoid strict sleep training but still have the same results (i.e., a baby who sleeps all night). Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, shares, “When I started talking to French parents about sleep, one mother said she was embarrassed to tell me how long it took her son to sleep through the night. Eventually she admitted that he was 4 months old. In France, this is considered very late! Most parents told me their babies started ‘doing their nights’— that’s the French expression—by two or three months.” So we should adopt their method and we’ll all be sleeping through the night by month three, right?
Well, not so fast. Druckerman notes, “They couldn’t really explain how this happened. Most claimed they just followed the baby’s own rhythm.” It appears that they do a bit of the “wait and see” method—as in, let’s wait and see if this baby goes back to sleep on his own—but they don’t let it escalate. “If the baby keeps crying, they pick him up,” says Druckerman. “But they’re sure that soon enough, he will learn how to sleep long stretches.”
In other parts of the world, co-sleeping is seen as the norm. Chinese tots typically bed with their parents until 2 to 3 years of age, and Indian youngsters may stay in the family bed as late as their early teen years. “Lots of cultures co-sleep for longer periods of time with no guilt,” says Mei-Ling Hopgood, author of How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting.
There is also often less emphasis on bedtimes than there is in the U.S. “In many places, sleep training isn’t necessary becausethey don’t have the early to bed, early to rise, same bed, same time value [Americans do],” explains Hopgood. “In Argentina, Egypt, Italy and Spain, it is expected that children would stay up to eat with the family, even if dinner is commonly at 9 or 10 p.m. In the United States, we want our kids to be independent and grow up to be productive citizens, so an earlier, more consistent pattern seems to fit. In other places, proximity to family and parents at all times is an overriding value.”
Attitudes toward feeding also tend to differ depending where you are on the globe. Americans hear “breast is best” at every turn, but even with all that emphasis on breastfeeding, only around 44 percent of mothers are still breastfeeding on their baby’s 6-month birthday. Perhaps it’s because some people still see nursing as taboo, particularly if it’s done in public (although the District of Columbia, Virgin Islands and 45 states all have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any private or public location). That feeling of needing to keep baby’s food supply under wraps isn’t found everywhere, however.
“[In] Africa and Latin America, breastfeeding in public is simply no big deal. I’d commonly see moms breastfeeding in buses, restaurants and other public places and no one would bat an eye, let alone arrest them,” shares Hopgood.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, breastfeeding is very much not the norm elsewhere. For example, long-term nursing is rare in France. “Most abandon it soon after leaving the maternity hospital,” says Druckerman. Breastfeeding is also uncommon beyond the first few weeks or months in the UK.
Once babies begin munching on solids, the American habit of introducing “kid foods” (think chicken nuggets and cheese pizza) is scoffed at in France. “From a very young age, French kids eat the same foods that their parents do,” Druckerman explains. The result? “All this tasting turns French kids into little gourmets,” she says. While every French kid may not be clamoring for another serving of broccoli, most do have more diverse palates and enjoy a wider variety of foods than their American counterparts.
Perhaps the biggest difference between parenting in America and parenting around the globe is the general attitude toward child rearing. “In many places, parents don’t feel the need to be ‘perfect’ and ‘solve’ the problems of parenthood. For example, in Argentina when I’d get together with Argentine moms, they would all lament not getting enough sleep, or how their new baby wakes at night, or how their toddler crawls in bed with them. But they wouldn’t fret constantly over how to solve every problem. They’d look at me like I was nuts when I’d try to plan out how to get my kid to sleep the way I wanted her to. It was like sleep issues were just part of the trials of parenthood and would eventually pass,” shares Hopgood.
Of course, it would be impossible to find a parent in any corner of the world who doesn’t worry about her child’s well-being. “Certainly people worried and fretted about things,” acknowledges Hopgood, “but not the same sorts of things that American parents tend to obsess over.”
For all you guilt-ridden mommies desperate for a 5-minute break, take this bit of advice: “The French assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there’s no need to feel guilty about this,” notes Druckerman. “Americans tend to think that babies are helpless blobs. The French believe that even a tiny baby—though he’s needy and vulnerable—is also a rational person who can learn certain things, such as how to sleep.”
I wish I had been exposed to all this diversity back when my son was a newbie—maybe I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself! It would’ve been nice to know then what I know now: That no matter how—or where—you put your baby to sleep at night, he has a good shot at growing up to be a well adjusted, healthy, happy kid. And that’s really all that’s important, no matter where in the world you are.