In northwest Botswana where the !Kung people live, sleep customs are markedly different from what the Western world has become used to. For starters, that hunting-gathering group sleeps on the ground with, at the most, simple skins or blankets to lie upon. And the !Kung, like many other traditional societies, never sleep alone. Teenagers bed down in groups with other teenagers, old men with old men. Babies sleep with their mothers and are breast-fed until the age of 5. “Sleep is much more social,” says anthropologist Carol Worthman of Emory University in Adanta.
There is much more napping and, remarkably, little of the deep phase that modern cultures value. “People have to keep one eye open for predators,” says Worthman, “and make sure the fire doesn’t go out.” But no one complains of tiredness.
Worthman began to study the sleep patterns of traditional communities about two years ago. A pediatrician friend, who studies the impact of mood disorders on sleep, had asked her what anthropologists know about the history of sleep. “My answer was we know nothing,” Worthman told Macleans. “But this is how people spend a third of their lives. We study how people forage or practise child care, but sleep has never been in the picture.” Other anthropologists, too, are turning their minds to various cultures’ and species’ nighttime habits. “We
Researchers find traditional cultures are better rested
sleep alone, we have little noise—no sounds of hyenas, camels or dogs—and we have temperatures regulated and windows covered to keep out light,” says Worthman. “Maybe this sensory deprivation is contributing to our uneasy sleep.”
For anthropologist James McKenna, the birth of his son, Jeff, 22 years ago, got him wondering whether it was natural for babies to sleep apart from their parents. McKenna, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, had studied the social structures of monkeys and apes. He realized primate babies stay by their mothers constandy, night and day. More than two years ago, he opened a mother-child sleep lab at Notre Dame to study the nighttime habits of newborns and their parents. “In Western culture, we believe the normal way for babies to sleep is in separate rooms,” McKenna says. “But babies have not had
time to accommodate their own biology to this. At night, they expect to be near the warm, nurturing bodies of their mothers.” McKenna believes sleeping in mom’s bed helps prevent sudden infant death syndrome, encourages breast-feeding and eliminates some sleep problems associated with infancy.
Parenting experts such as Benjamin Spock encouraged separation for Freudian reasons, says McKenna. They believed cosleeping with parents could lead to sexual dysfunction in the child. But, he claims, “there is not any evidence or data to indicate that.” In fact, until about 100 years ago, parents did sleep with their children. “The separation had to do with changing economic conditions and cultural values,” he says.
Just last year, the U.S. consumer products safety commission warned parents not to sleep with their babies for fear of smothering them. But McKenna says that warning is full of hot air. Ninety-two per cent of the babies who died in bed in the United States in the past 20 years slept alone, he says. And when smothering did occur, it was often when parents were drunk or drugged.
Parents, McKenna concludes, must do whatever makes them feel comfortable. “Contrary to all those parent books, nobody can describe what your baby is going to do,” he says. “There is no such thing as normal infant sleep.” Nor is there, as anthropologists and other researchers have found, such a thing as normal adult sleep.
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