Our Babies, Ourselves

While looking for reading material at my local library, I came across this book by Meredith F. Small that was published in 1998. As I read the blurb on the back, I seemed to recall having it recommended to me before, but I had never gotten around to reading it. Well, I decided to go ahead and pick it up this time, and I am very glad that I did.

Our Babies, Ourselves isn’t your typical parenting book; it comes from the world of ethnopediatrics.  Ethnopediatrics is a developing field of science that examines childcare practices through the lens of evolution, biology, and cultural expectations. Through this research the different parenting techniques, especially as regards infant-care, were compared through various cultures, Western and non-Western, industrialized and non-industrialized. The thing that would startle many parents in the United States are that the standard parenting practices of this country, designed to promote independence, are not necessarily compatible with the physiological needs of babies. This is why the U.S. has one of the highest rates of SIDS in the world and colic is a frustration only suffered by American and Western European babies and parents.

The book looks at three main areas of infant care: sleeping, crying, and eating. I had always heard that in most other countries that co-sleeping with a baby was the norm, but parents who do it in this country are made to feel wrong or over-indulgent. Most Americans would be amazed to learn that co-sleeping is not only the norm in third-world or primitive cultures, but it is even the norm in industrialized Japan. Sleep studies of co-sleeping pairs show that when a mother and baby share a bed they become a synchronized unit of breathing and sleep cycles. It is believed that during this sleep time the mother is actually teaching the baby (whose nervous system is not completely developed) how to breathe more thoroughly. Research shows that all healthy babies have short periods at night where they stop breathing, called apnea. The baby that sleeps with its mother receives and subtle nudge from the mother’s own breathing pattern to start breathing again. However, a baby that is left to sleep in a separate bed in another room might not receive this nudge at a time when it may need it; they believe that this is one of the main causes of SIDS.

Of course, the American Academy of Pediatrics is still outspokenly against co-sleeping. They say it is too dangerous because the child will be smothered by blankets or over-laying by a parent. They don’t explain that in 99% of these cases the parent was drunk, taking illegal or prescription drugs, or obese. It’s one of those things where they have to preach to the lowest common denominator, when it might be more constructive and healthier for babies if guidelines for safe co-sleeping were established.

Studies of crying between cultures and in the science lab offered some interesting results as well. Babies in non-Western cultures cry less than those in the West, and colic is completely unheard of. The reason that babies in other cultures cry less is because they are often carried and interacted with at a higher rate than Western babies and their cries are almost always responded to promptly by a parent, sibling, or at times the whole village. In this country, parents are discouraged from responding promptly to their infants past the first few months for fear of spoiling them with attention. Behavioral studies show, though, that babies need constant human interaction as much as they need food, sleep, and fresh diapers. Since the majority of cases of colic can not be traced back to any physical problem, and colic is non-existent in most non-Western cultures, ethnopediatric scientists conclude that colic is a symptom that the babies nervous system has become off kilter because it has not received enough stimulation from human interaction.

Of course, the chapter on feeding, underscores what we already know. Breastfeeding truly is best for babies. That is what a woman’s body is designed to do. The book is clear that formula can be considered a nutritionally viable alternative in cultures that can bottle-feed sanitarily, but in already impoverished areas, encouraging mothers to bottle-feed instead of breastfeed is actually more harmful to their babies.  The biology of breastfeeding is designed to help the a baby survive in spite of the nutritional deficit of the mother. And beyond nutrition, breastfeeding offers more of the human interaction a baby needs and often is packaged with the benefits of co-sleeping. In fact, SIDS researchers learned to suggest laying babies on their backs to sleep by noting the low-rate of SIDS among breast-fed babies. Breastfeeding requires that a co-sleeping baby be put down on her back in order to nurse. Breastfeeding also passes immunities, hormones, and natural chemicals that may actually help a baby’s nervous system develop faster.

Another point of interest about this book is its description of how economics effects culture which effects parenting techniques.  Studies of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies that are being forced to settle down to a more agrarian lifestyle are showing changes in their parenting practices as there are new community goals and different dangers.  And secondly, there is an examination of the role of the pediatrician in the Western world.  Pediatricians are often called upon for advice to behavior problems that are outside the realm of their experience or expertise.  In non-Western cultures parents would seek advice from other family members and friends, but in the West we have become dependent on pediatricians for help with parenting beyond physical health and illness.

It is possible that I may have liked the book because it did vindicate parenting techniques that I already used (co-sleeping and breastfeeding).  Although, it also gave me some food for thought.  For instance, it looks as if babies really are designed to be breastfed longer than most people are comfortable with the thought of (even me).  And though I learned early that letting the baby cry it out only led to a more stressed-out baby and parent, I know that I could probably improve on my over-all response time to my next baby (while still keeping in my mind that she can cry for two minutes while I go to the bathroom).  And I am thinking that instead of looking for every opportunity to peacefully set the baby down in a bouncer or bassinet, maybe I should get more use out of the sling and keep her closer to me.  It might be less stressful for both of us in the long run.  This book definitely has me thinking, which is the best thing to be said for any book.

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4 Comments on “Our Babies, Ourselves”


  1. I think that it should be made clear that co-sleeping is a generic term used for both bed-sharing and room-sharing. The AAP is against bed-sharing but promotes room-sharing.

    Further, from an anthropoligical standpoint, it is true that most families have bedshared throughout history. Do you plan on sleeping with your infant in the same type of bedding situation? That means you give up your nice comfortable mattress, your pillow-topper, your quilt, your pillows etc. Eastern cultures generally sleep on a pallet on the floor. They also tend to sleep with their infant perpendicular to the parents with t he infant positioned above the parents heads.

    Finally, we careful of statements like “They don’t explain that in 99% of these cases the parent was drunk, taking illegal or prescription drugs, or obese.” Where do you get that number from? I work with families every day who have experienced the unexpected death of an infant. In some cases it’s rulled SIDS and in others accidental suffocation. In almost all cases, they are loving, caring well-intentioned parents. It is possible to bedshare with an infant and make it less dangerous, but in US culture, it’s nearly impossible to make it safe.

    How can you measure the tiredness level of a new parent. Especially one that has little support from extended family and has to get up and go to work the next day? Accidental suffocation is an ACCIDENT. A horrible tragic accident. Just because it didn’t happen to you doesn’t make you better, it makes you lucky.

    Breastfeeding is absolutely the best way to go, but successful breastfeeding does not require bed-sharing. Placing baby in a safe crib in the same room as Mom works just as well. Baby can hear you breathing. Mom and Dad can easily tend to babies needs. Bring baby into bed to feed, but for sleep – place them back in a safe crib. Why take the chance?

  2. barboo77 Says:

    Co-sleeping can be a generic term for either bed-sharing or room-sharing. However, in studies of 186 nonindustrial societies conducted in 1971 and 1987 (cited in the book) children slept in the same bed in 46 percent of the cultures. Even if they are sleeping on pallets rather than mattresses, overlaying would still be a concern. The book has very well documented sleep studies and other research that conclude that the chances of infant death by overlaying are slim.

    More and more people are choosing to do so, and one reason is precisely because it keeps a new mother from becoming over-tired. It is less tiring to roll over and give your baby your breast than to have to get up, turn on lights, and walk across a room or into another room. Plus, you can respond more quickly to your baby before the baby gets fully awake (thus making it often harder to get them back to sleep after feeding).

    People due it safely all of the time. Here are some basic guidelines:
    1. Choose a large-sized bed, like a king or queen, if baby will be sleeping with both parents or buy a twin mattress set to put up against a standard or queen. (This second option is not really more expensive than a crib and can be moved to the other room when the child is older.) 2. Put box springs and mattress on floor and push against wall.
    3. Do not put newborn between parents; put between wall and mother giving baby the bulk of room. 4. Do not use pillows or blankets in babies sleeping area of the bed; use thicker sleeper outfit or sleep sack on cold night. 5. Have mother use thin blankets or double up clothing at night if cold. Many parents are also using co-sleeper bassinets that attach to the bed but give the baby it’s own designated sleeping space. And personally I don’t mind giving up fancy comforters and such if it is in the best interest of me and my baby.

    Accidental suffocation is an accident, but that does not mean that some accidents can not be prevented if there is better education. Like I said, perhaps there would be fewer instances of this if parents were given information to do it safely. Parents in America are dependent on medical doctors to make all of their decisions for them, but even medical doctors don’t have all of the correct answers. And doctors can be just as prone to uninformed cultural bias as the next person. And while the official AAP position may be to promote room-sharing, it is not a position promoted very heavily. Parents are told fifty billion times to lay their baby on their backs to sleep to preven SIDS, but they are not often told that having their baby in the same room can eliminate the risk even more.

    And I agree that successful breastfeeding does not require bed-sharing. And even dealing with a newborn, I have had to sit up to get the nursing position right for the first few weeks. It is less exhausting than having to go in another room. Co-sleeping is also less stressful for both parent and child as the baby goes to sleep easier next to a parent than by itself and the parent doesn’t have to worry about waking the baby up when transferring to a crib.

  3. Kirsten Says:

    Hey, I stumbled across this today, even though it’s an older post, but really enjoyed it and want to check out that book. This, like many parenting topics, gets people heated! 🙂

  4. Random T. Says:

    Hey, nice tips. I’ll buy a glass of beer to the person from that chat who told me to go to your blog 🙂


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