Guest Post: The gentle African way to your baby sleeping through the night

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BedsharingMany 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]

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  1. says

    This is an absolutely delightful post. It reminds me of my days as a first time mother, breastfeeding my child well into his second year because I was convinced that weening needed to be natural, when we were both ready, waking up to feed him and cuddle with him once every night, until he said one day “Big boys put themselves to sleep. I am a big boy.” He was two and a half years old. He ended the bedtime nursing, and finally slept through the night (yay), on his own bed. I was ready, and so was him.

  2. Karen W says

    Great article. I’ve had 3 kids. My first I was very regimented and never ever slept with her. She was on MY SCHEDULE for everything. It made both of us crazy! I did not like being a mom to be honest. My second I was a little more relaxed with and I enjoyed motherhood much more and I think he was a much more relaxed baby and toddler. With this last child who is 17 months now I’ve pretty much synced with his rhythms. He sleeps with me every night and has naturally gotten to the point that he sleeps through the night. He weaned himself very naturally when he was 14 months with none of the trauma of forcing the issue. He is a very happy baby and I have a much stronger bond wit him. I wish someone would have told me to relax with the other two. I know this kind of parenting isn’t for everyone, but for us it was magic and still is magical. I love our night times together. I’ve even gone so far as to have family sleep overs and all of the kids love it!

  3. Danika says

    Thank you for sharing… This is a truly beautiful testimonial, one I feel is based in much wisdom. I am touched to tears and smiles.

  4. Elaine Winchester/Crozier says

    Love your writing about your parenting and breastfeeding experiences across cultural differences you an observe first hand. I am European-Zimbabwean and was involved with LLL (Sears 😉 and IBFAN in Kenya and other African countries. My observations and awareness grew much the way yours has. Ever meet Margaret Isabirya Kyenkya? (Ugandan in Kenya, USA and returned to Uganda) I was very saddened to find more and more African babies did cry – being bottle-fed and brought up with Western ways – thinking it an educated approach to use formula, to “free” mum from travail .My three fifth-generation African-born children were breastfed for almost 12 years 😉 Go well Claire

  5. Monica says

    This is such a wonderful post, thank you for sharing. I love that she was the one who decided she wanted her own space, I wonder if she felt that because she had made the choice she could change her mind any time she wanted without recrimination. This is what I hope my daughter feels when she is ready for more independence, that she can always come back to me if she needs to. She’s only four months so I hope that is not any time soon! :c)

  6. Can says

    Great article. I am on my second child and trying to do exactly this. Go with his schedule rather than my own as my first child was completely different – slept through the night in her own crib and really young baby. Problem is keeping with my second child’s schedule I am just sooo tired during the day. I am one of the lucky ones that I don’t have to work and I can concentrate on bringing up my own children. So it’s very hard work trying to do this way of night sleeping when other people in the household have a different schedule I have to keep to as well

    • laura says

      this is my problem… i have 5 kids 10 and under and my youngest is a b/f baby of 9 months. we never co-slept, as our bed is too small and it’s harder on a marriage i think, to do so. while i hear moms love it i have yet to hear of dads who do. but it’s true–hubby on one schedule, baby on another, older kids o another… and mom trying to go between them all!

      • says

        I just wanted to let you know that those dads do exist. Actually I love bedsharing when they are little but once they hit about 3 I am COMPLETELY over it, whereas their dad is volunteering to sleep on the sofa so his girls can be next to me where they aren’t scared and sleep all night peacefully. He hates that I need my space at night and have them in their own room, it doesn’t matter that I am the one who has to get up 2-8x a night with the oldest one…and despite not being a cuddler with me, if one of the kids crawls in, he spends all night with one arm curled around them almost protectively in his sleep.

        Its not for everyone, I just wanted you to know that there are some dads who encourage it and love bedsharing :)

        • Claire says

          Me and my husband both love bed sharing. We have both said we’ll be a little sad when our little boy moves into his own bed (he’s only 10 months so it probably won’t happen for quite a while!) We never planned to do it, it just works for our family and we all sleep much better for it. It also gives my husband and baby extra bonding time as he works up to 12 hours a day. As for it being harder on a marriage, I disagree, we still make time for each other. And I think if we were exhausted from getting up all night our marriage would suffer a lot more! ☺

  7. Judy says

    An excellent article. When my first daughter was born, in England, I was encouraged by all the professionals to keep to set times for feeding and sleeping. Luckily she was a very easy going baby, but it was hard. By the time daughter No. 2 arrived, we were living in Zambia. She wasn’t so easy going – she needed contact with me all the time. So I copied the local Mums, wrapped her in a cloth and tied on onto me. She was happy, I wasn’t stressed. We spent most of each day tied together like that. Daughter No. 3 was different again, she enjoyed being tied in a cloth for some of the time, but also liked to be left alone to sleep in a cot. All 3 slept in a cot at night, but right next to me, so if they stirred, I was within arms length and could offer a soothing hand or lift them into bed with me for a feed. My middle daughter still feels stressed if she doesn’t have contact with me every day (she is now 40), and the others are quite independent still. Each child is different and has different needs. There is no ‘right’ way of parenting. You just have to work it out together.

  8. Shannon says

    I have coslept since the beginning with my 15 month old son and I love it. My challenge is that I miss my husband (he sleeps in another room). What do African fathers do?

    • Jacqueline says

      The same here. How can we solve the problem? I love to co sleep with my daughter but my husband still sleeps in another room and started to complain

  9. Michelle says

    I love the article but I never wanted to breast feed and do not feel as though I missed out on any of the bonding.. I knew I was going back to full time shift work when my daughter was very young and she was 16 weeks when that happened. It was a financial decision not a personal choice decision.

    She slept in my room until she was too big for her crib and then I moved her to her cot in her own room probably when she was about 3-4 months old.. I was extremely lucky as my daughter found her own rhythm very very early on. She slept from 11pm – 6am from 3 days old and was very happy with her bottle feeding regime.

    She even decided she wanted more than milk at 14 weeks of age (she was sleeping 8pm – 8am every night by this point) and despite the health visitors disapproval but GP approval we started baby rice as part of her breakfast regime and she was absolutely fine. It seemed after such a long sleep she needed more than just milk!

    I think everybody should be able to find their own rhythm without feeling pressure or guilt from anyone or anywhere and I feel that is what is so wonderful about this article.

  10. says

    I loved this post and have shared it with my clients. I am also an osteopath and my parents are born in Kenya- it was great to read about interdependence and independence. I think excess independence leads to chronic detachment and loneliness in the Western world. It’s particularly sad seeing the amount of new mums who have next to no support, or elderly people living and surviving alone without contact.

  11. says

    JC, I love what you’ve written. I lived for a number of years in the Canadian Arctic and the Inuit attitude to co-sleeping is exactly the same as this. In fact, I often laugh at the very Western middle class concept of ‘attachment parenting’. Isn’t that just the way the majority of people all over the world raise their kids – breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing? My years living in an Inuit community before I had children of my own had a huge impact on my approach to parenting once my kids came along.

    Thanks too for your research about sleep patterns. Of course adults don’t sleep through the night. I don’t. I’m up at least once to go to the loo. Sometimes I wake up and lie there, thinking about things. Some of my best thinking happens in the middle of the night! So why should we expect children to conform to some mythical sleep-through-the-night fantasy?

    You didn’t mention going to bed times. That’s a big bone of contention for me at the moment. My children are home schooled, so don’t have a set time for waking in the morning. So I allow them to go to bed when they choose. Usually they want to go to bed no later than 9.30. But at the moment we’re visiting my in-laws who think children should be in bed by 8pm. It’s causing friction and I end up spending two hours just hanging out with my girls in their bedroom before they’re ready for sleep, when they would prefer to be out in the garden, or roaming the house, or playing with their toys elsewhere.

    Keep on writing!


  1. […] 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. […]

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