Many of you know the very viral (and imo, wonderful) piece “Why African Babies Don’t Cry: An African Perspective”. Well, here I present a guest article by the same author, the very talented JC Niala, on sleeping from her very unique, personal history as an African-British woman. I am so thrilled she has decided to share this with us and hope you enjoy it!
By JC Niala
There is a fundamental difference in the way children are raised in the Majority World compared with the West. This stems from perceived benefits of interdependence vs. independence. Having experienced both cultures I would say that they can learn from each other but ultimately the choices that parents make can have a profound impact dependent on their cultural context.
When I returned to the country of my birth Kenya after over a decade and a half of living in the UK, it was a strong maternal instinct that drove me. I had grown up in Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire and the UK and was keen for my then unborn child to grow up with an understanding of interdependence. I was also (like many first time parents) incredibly naïve. The first time that I had considered the concept of Nighttime parenting was when I encountered a Sears’ book with that very title. Until then I had assumed that given my propensity for sleep, my baby would turn out to be exactly the same. How wrong was I.
African Time is different to European Time in that the emphasis is based on the action that occurs rather than the arbitrary time to which it is assigned to occur. Those living more in tune with natural rhythms find this less of a problem, but I was returning to the city of Nairobi which is much the same as any Western city in the way in which it functions.
When I first returned I was living with my mother who had kindly adapted her house for our impending arrival. She had specially installed a new bathroom complete with adjoining purpose built changing room. What was noticeable by its absence was a lack of ‘nursery’ for the soon-to-arrive baby; there wasn’t even a cot. In traditional African parenting style, it was expected that in the early days I would be with the baby 24 hours a day and that necessarily included the nights.
There are many books and articles that go into the ‘safety’ of co-sleeping. This is something that many Kenyan mothers find rather amusing. In Kenya it is the opposite where it is viewed as dangerous for infants to sleep in a room by themselves. How could the mother respond quickly to a baby’s needs, what about nighttime feeding?
Having been given no option, and not really able to imagine a different one myself, I simply got on with it. My daughter slept next to me and I discovered a whole world that I did not know existed. Between the ages of 8 – 12 months she would wake in the morning and sing for half an hour before she even opened her eyes. Her paediatrician informed me that she was one of the only children he had seen with such severe eczema who had not scratched until she bled – being next to her I was able to catch her hands and apply soothing cream any time that she needed it.
The nighttime became yet another opportunity for us to bond and connect. This made me interested in sleep. In my practice, I started to ask patients how many of them (as adults) slept through the night. A lot less did than you might think. Many woke to go to the toilet, others to get a drink, some woke regularly and had found a way to manage this, and a few did struggle with insomnia. It made me realize that perhaps what we demanded from babies was actually quite impossible for some and so I started to research. I found that many cultures all over the world do not consider it strange to wake at night and even make use of that time!
The Kung! Of Botswana will sing and play games. In Europe in the 16th Century there were even special night time cafés that catering to this particular clientele. (The myth of the eight hour sleep is an article which covers this well) There are even Catholic prayers devoted to and to be said specifically during ‘the time between the two sleeps.’
This was invaluable information for when as a toddler my daughter would wake – and be fully awake at 2am. Instead of pacing the floors and trying to get her to return to sleep we did things. We baked, we drew and after an hour or two she would return to sleep. The phase only lasted a few months and looking back I now see how we snatched together time that we had somehow lost in my busy days filled with the return to work.
At 4 she decided it was time – she woke up one morning and throwing open our cupboard doors declared ‘why do we have to share everything?’ Our consistent practice of shared sleep was over. My sister-in-law gave me a cot-bed, I converted my writer’s studio into a bedroom and she moved out of my room and into her own.
What the African philosophy behind co-sleeping and Nighttime parenting had given me was four years of liberation. I was free to enjoy our closeness without any guilt, free to embrace her varying sleeping patterns and wait for a natural consistency to emerge, free to play with her in the middle of the night because there was no pressure that she was supposed to be doing anything than what we were doing in that moment. There was no pressure for her to be independent so young and no concerns that she would never learn to do one of these most natural things – just in her own unique style.
Author Biography: JC Niala is a mother, creative and osteopath who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world.
[Image Credit: Gioia Albano]