Rocking and Swinging Babies to Sleep, In Thailand and the Rest of the World
I’m working on the “sleep strategies” chapter of my book. This chapter is about the strategies that we use to help our babies sleep and how these practices correlate to the development of baby’s sleep patterns.
I’m fascinated by cultural variation in nighttime parenting strategies. However, according to some accounts, there’s a simplistic dichotomy in the way parents around the world help their babies sleep. In most of the world, mothers sleep with their babies and breastfeed on demand throughout the night. Sleep is not a problem, because babies simply aren’t expected to sleep through the night. We in the West, however, don’t understand normal infant sleep. We bend over backwards with all sorts of tricks and gadgets to help our newborns sleep, often alone. (I’m looking at you, swings, bouncy seats, strollers, drives in the car, exercise balls, washing machines.) Then, a few months later, we tire of the antics, grow intolerant of night wakings, and turn to sleep training as the answer.
There is definitely some truth to this. It’s something that I’m writing about in greater detail in my book. But we also know that nothing is as simple as it seems, and infant sleep is no exception. I think it’s helpful to know that parents everywhere struggle with their babies’ sleep or lack thereof, and that’s true regardless of sleep customs or cultural expectations (Sadeh et al. 2011). No matter where they’re born, babies have to acclimate to a world that grows dark and quiet at night and bright and busy during the day. We might use different strategies to help our babies sleep, but there are many similarities as well.
I ran across one of these similarities in a paper I read yesterday (Anuntaseree et al. 2008). Thai researchers surveyed parents of three-month-olds born across the country in 2000. They asked the parents how their babies fell asleep, where they slept, how they were fed, and how often they woke during the night. The parents of more than 3700 babies responded to the survey.
Most of these babies – 68% – shared a bed with their parents. The rest slept in a separate bed but in the same room. Putting babies to sleep in a separate room was nearly unheard of. Of 3700 babies, only two slept alone (a whopping 0.05%). About half were exclusively breastfed, and another quarter were fed a combination of breast milk and formula. On average, these three-month-old babies woke their parents 2.7 times per night, but there was of course a lot of variation here. Nearly 50% woke just one or two times per night. The researchers wondered which factors were related to waking more often, and they found significant correlations with these: male gender, more than three naps per day, falling asleep while feeding, exclusive breastfeeding, and the use of a swinging or rocking cradle.
The gender and napping associations are a little odd and not supported by other studies. However, the rest of it isn’t surprising. It is well accepted that breastfed infants wake more often during the night. Human breast milk is more rapidly digestible than formula (Cavell 1981), so breastfed babies need to feed more frequently. It’s also a common finding that feeding to sleep increases waking (or more accurately, waking the mother) during the night.
But I was really interested in learning more about the swinging or rocking cradles mentioned in this paper. It turned out that 88% of babies commonly started their night in such a cradle. Here’s how the paper described it:
“Use of a swinging or rocking cradle for infant sleep is traditionally used in many Asian countries including Thailand. The typical “getting the infant to sleep” situation in Thailand is for parents to use a cradle as a sleeping aid, and then when the infant falls [to] sleep, transfer the infant to the bed. There has been no previous study regarding the effect of this custom on night waking; our study is the first to demonstrate this association.”
I was curious about what a Thai swinging cradle might look like, so of course, I Googled it. The only photos I found showed a pretty extraordinary contraption:
I found these photos on this design blog and emailed the author, Jop Timmers, to see if I could repost his photos here. He happily agreed, and he told me a bit more about the photos:
“The picture was taken in Kong Chiam, close to the Mekong River and near the border with Laos. The grandmother was trying to make the crying baby of 9 months old to become quiet and go to sleep. The speed was dazzling, but it worked, the boy fell asleep almost instantly. It was a habit of her to do so.”
Anuntaseree et al. consistently refer to “swinging or rocking cradles,” so I assume that the swinging design is not unusual. I’m picturing the rocking cradles as being more similar to the traditional European design, but that’s just a guess. Anyone have more knowledge of these cradles?
There are a few things to point out about this Thai study. For one thing, rocking or feeding to sleep didn’t doom parents to sleepless nights. Plenty of babies in this study fell asleep this way and only woke once or twice. And second, this Thai study just identified associations. (As I said, it isn’t particularly groundbreaking work, but I think it is interesting from a cross-cultural perspective.) As with any cross-sectional study, we don’t know for sure if it is the infant influencing the parenting practices or vise versa. It is surely a bit of both. But several lines of evidence support the idea that parental practices shape baby’s sleep. One study found that mothers’ ideas about infant sleep during pregnancy predicted how many times their babies would wake during the night at 6 months, and this effect was mediated by the way they soothed their babies (Tikotsky and Sadeh 2009). And when parents are counseled, even prenatally, on early strategies to encourage their babies to learn to go to sleep on their own, their babies end up with fewer night wakings (Pinilla and Birch 1993, Kerr et al. 1996, Wolfson et al. 1992). In other words, how you parent around bedtime and during the night has at least some impact on how your baby sleeps.
The strategy of using motion to help babies fall asleep must be universal. We parents find that if we can mimic the motion of the uterine environment in some way, it is often soothing to our newborns. In the first weeks and months of parenting, we’ll do anything to help calm our babies. And really, who can blame us? But, at some point, we often find ourselves stuck with unsustainable sleep associations. Perhaps Thai parents are no different. The baby in the photos above has learned to fall asleep with motion akin to a carnival ride. This kind of environment is actually quite different from the one he experienced during fetal life, and at some point, he’s going to have to learn to fall asleep while his body is still.
I have a love-hate relationship with motion as a sleep aid. We bounced Cee to sleep on an exercise ball for most the first three months of her life, and this may have saved my sanity and feelings of self-efficacy as a new parent. But then I was horrified when I realized that she couldn’t wind down without a fairly vigorous 30 minutes or more of bopping up and down. For her, learning to fall asleep without motion made all the difference in the quantity and quality of her sleep. I wish that I had supported Cee in learning to fall asleep in stillness or even a more gentle, sustainable motion, a bit sooner. Of course, that’s always easier to say in hindsight. At the time, we were surviving one day at a time.
I don’t think we should be afraid to rock our babies to sleep for as long as we want. We should just know that it might be causing baby to wake more later in the night. If that doesn’t appeal to you, consider helping your baby to learn some other ways to fall asleep. If a baby falls asleep in conditions that are similar to those he’ll feel when he wakes briefly during the night, he’s more likely to be able to yawn and go back to sleep. The key is to find opportunities to make that a gentle transition earlier in life, lest you end up with a nine-month-old who requires “dazzling speed” to get some rest.
Did you use motion to help your baby sleep? How did you transition away from that strategy?
While we’re talking baby cradles from around the world, here’s a few more cool cradles that turned up in my Internet meandering. And if you can’t tell, I’m really having a lot of fun with this research!
This one is labeled as a “Primitive African handcrafted baby cradle” and is for sale on 1stdibs.com.
A gorgeous Japanese cradle, dated 1701-1850, inlaid with tortoise and abalone shells. I wonder if that hole in the bottom third has something to do with diapering or lack thereof?
An Italian cradle, dated 1600-1750, made of fabric covered in plaster.
And finally, here’s a modern cradle with a cool design. Of course, you might prefer to just hold your baby if you’re going to rock him to sleep, but this cradle does eliminate the delicate transfer maneuver (although this doesn’t look like a safe place for a baby to sleep unsupervised for the night).