Sleep Lessons from Nomadic Peoples

If you could travel back in time and visit our Paleolithic ancestors you’d be hard-pressed to find a sleep-deprived dad griping about his baby keeping him up all night. Hunter-gatherer civilizations generally don’t seem to have a problem putting babies down to bed, or some of the other sleep problems that plague modern Americans. This is what researchers like Alyssa Crittenden, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Nevada’s Department of Anthropology, have found when they study the small-scale, non-industrial populations that still exist today. Sleep patterns, like the rest of life for hunter-gatherer families, look vastly different than our own, for obvious reasons. Still, there are some lessons to be taken from the way that these families treat sleep.

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Researchers have found most groups of people that still practice foraging lifestyles, like the Hadza population in Tanzania, have a family bed. Dad, mom, and the kids all sleep together, not only in one room, but in the same bed. “The type of bed varies — a Tatami mat, an impala skin — it depends on where you are in the world, but it’s otherwise consistent,” says Crittenden. “The family bed has deep evolutionary roots.”

In the family bed, moms with nursing infants sleep with their baby, and the baby suckles on-demand, both night and day. Bedtime, for everyone, is 2-3 hours after sunset. Baby gets out of bed when mom gets out of bed. Baby naps throughout the day whenever he wants, in the arms or sling of whoever is carrying him at that time. As difficult as it is to replicate these practices in the post-industrial West, there are modern parenting philosophies, like attachment parenting, that attempt to do so. And the results are clear there too. “Comparative studies have found that infants who are soothed and suckled on-demand, particularly in the first three months of life, are reported to have lower amounts of fussing and crying,” says Crittenden, “and that includes at night.”

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Baby-wearing as well is universal in such societies, and the baby would generally never be left out of contact with skin. Some modern-day parenting philosophies, most notably attachment parenting, say these hands-on techniques are still superior to using a crib. It’s currently undisputed that holding an infant calms the child down. In a 1986 study out of McGill University, researchers concluded that six-week old infants cried significantly less when their parents made it a point to wear the baby — as in a sling — as much as possible. Recent studies, like those coming out of the
Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, are favorable to the benefits of co-sleeping as well, showing that the practice can benefits infants’ physiological and psychological well-being and development. It’s also an easier and more natural way for mom and baby to sleep, particularly when breastfeeding.

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That doesn’t mean the key to a good night’s sleep is to bring your baby into your bed and wear them 24-7. “The sleeping platforms that small-scale foraging populations are using look nothing like our beds,” says Crittenden. “They’re not even remotely similar.” Modern beds in the post-industrialized West, with pillow-top mattresses, blankets, and pillows, are potentially hazardous to infants, and bed-sharing is not recommended by the American Pediatric Association.

While anthropologists and doctors may disagree on the best way to sleep with an infant, Crittenden says there’s a middle ground. In Europe, baby boxes, literally a box sent home with every new baby, is a proactive way to bring baby into the parents’ bedroom without risking unsafe bed-sharing. Similarly, sidecars, little sleepers that attach to the side of mom’s and dad’s bed, or having baby in a bassinet in the parents’ bedroom, are both ways to get some of the benefits of the ancestral family bed without the modern-day dangers. “Our ancestors had no other choice than to co-sleep and breast feed on demand,” says Crittenden. “Today, we have so many options. What you choose can be whatever best fulfills the needs of your family.”