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Figuratively speaking, we love to talk about who’s sleeping with whom. But when it comes to literally sleeping with one another — that is, sharing a bed — Americans are more private than much of the planet’s population.
Bed-sharing (or lack thereof) is a consequence of customs, environmental conditions, cultural values and affluence. Bedmates wield an enormous amount of influence over our rest, from the quality to the duration, and are yet another factor proving that sleep patterns are as much cultural as they are biological.
As it turns out, Americans are in the minority. Around the world, sleeping together in marriage isn’t normal and sleeping away from one’s children is considered weird.
The Western Family Bed
Dr. Carolyn Schwarz, a professor of anthropology at Goucher College, was completing her fieldwork in Northern Australia when a Western movie came on the television screen. The scene depicted a mother tucking her child into bed, and then retreating to her own room. Schwarz’s Aboriginal host mother commented, “The poor child has to sleep by himself!”
Globally speaking, the woman’s reaction wasn’t unusual. Many of the world’s mothers wouldn’t dream of placing a baby or young child in his own separate bed. The Western concept of sleep as a highly private affair simply isn’t universal. In fact, industrialized Western societies stand out amongst almost all cultures worldwide when it comes to family beds.
“Sleeping patterns are so tied to the importance of kinship for most cultures,” Dr. Schwarz says. “The idea of a crib or separating children physically to sleep would be considered unimaginable, even neglectful.”
Environmental factors, of course, come into play. In warm regions, for example, there’s no need for heavy blankets and tangly sheets that can contribute to infant injuries, even death, in co-sleeping situations. The !Kung people of Botswana simply sleep on the sandy ground; the Efe people in Zaire perch between two logs or rest on leaves.
“A typical configuration is two adults, a baby, another child, a grandparent, a dog and perhaps a visitor, sleeping together in a six-by-six-foot hut,” said sleep expert Dr. Robert Sack, describing a normal night for the Efe.
Practicality aside, there’s also a marked difference in cultural values. Many American pediatricians warn parents of unhealthy attachments being fostered from the practice of co-sleeping. Parental intimacy will suffer, they say, and the baby’s umbilical cord will re-grow, staking its hooks in mom forever.
Meanwhile, other cultures (and an increasing number of American parents, it must be noted) view co-sleeping as the most natural thing in the world. They say it promotes the breastfeeding and bonding necessary for raising a healthy child.
In a study of 186 nonindustrial cultures, anthropologist John Whiting found that 67 percent of children slept in the company of others.
No Norm Is Normal
In an effort to identify the most common sleep arrangements, Whiting studied 136 societies. The most prominent, he found, was mother with child in one bed and father in another bed is the norm in 50 percent of the cultures he surveyed. The other three: mother and father in the same bed, with baby in another bed; all members of the family in separate beds; all members of the family together in one bed.
As Whiting noted, separate sleep is more typical in warmer environments. The indigenous people of the Amazon sleep in individual hammocks, for example, separating even married couples. (Intimate relations are reserved for the gardens.) In regions where the winter temperature falls below 50 degrees, men and women routinely sleep together.
The number of people per household also contributes to the typicality of certain sleep arrangements. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average American household has 2.8 residents. Meanwhile, in Iraq, that number is 7.7. Who’s more likely to have the luxury of individual rooms, mattresses and other personal sleeping paraphernalia?
An Ongoing Evolution
Back in the day, “to pig” was an expression for sleeping with one or more bedmates in Irish households. Each family member had a designated spot according to age and gender, historian Roger A. Ekirch writes in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekirch describes “the eldest daughter next to the wall farthest from the door, then all the sisters according to their ages, next the mother, father, and sons in succession, and then the strangers, whether the traveling peddler or tailor or beggar.”
This set-up ensured that females were insulated from any intruders, and that the males were closest to the door for protection.
These days, adults in America have the luxury of sharing a bed with just a spouse with no kids involved. In fact, to sleep separately from one’s partner is seen as a sure indicator of marital conflict, showing that co-sleeping isn’t the only sleeping practice to face stigmatization in the U.S.
It’s difficult to lock down when exactly sleeping together as a married couple became the norm in the West. In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, David K. Randall writes that couples in the Victorian era considered sharing a bed unsanitary and dangerous; each was at risk of having their “life forces” drained by a bed mate.
And yet, when twin beds were made popular in the 1890s, “clergymen and family physicians were drawn into the rapidly bitter domestic controversy, many of the former predicting the breakdown of the holy bonds of marriage by the separation of husband and wife,” writes Evangeline Howard on Edwardian Promenade, a website dedicated to that era’s history.
Clearly, to share or not to share — even for married couples — has long been a source of controversy. But are current norms, too, subject to change? Will the belief that married couples should sleep together eventually fall out of fashion, even in the West?
It’s entirely possible, says Randall. Couples sleeping together “is just one of those things where it now seems normal in our culture — but that’s just what’s popular now.”
Dr. Christine Rittenour, associate professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, agrees, but points to external perceptions. “You can’t assess a couple by one behavior,” she said. “If a couple needs to sleep in different beds to get rest, but still maintains closeness, then great. It’s just important to talk openly and kindly about why they’d like to sleep separately. Getting sleep is a good thing.”
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