Adrienne's Reviews > Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small
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Jun 18, 10

Read from June 04 to 18, 2010

I wish I had read this book before I had babies, but I'm definitely glad I'm reading it when they're still little. It is about the field of ethnopediatrics, the comparative study of parenting across cultures, with the ultimate goal of determining where mismatches between biology and culture exist so that we can better meet our babies' needs.

A major tenet of Small's argument is that the biology of babies has evolved at a pace much slower than our culture's technology and lifestyle. As a result, we have accepted as the norm many parenting practices that simply do not jive with what our babies really need from us. That chapter about the evolution of babies isn't quite as interesting as later chapters but it's important for understanding and appreciating them (though I decided to skim after awhile).

An interesting fact: The SIDS rate is lower in countries where babies sleep with an adult.

"The United States consistently stands out as the only society in which babies are routinely placed in their own beds and in their own rooms; in one survey of a hundred societies, only parents in the United States maintained separate quarters for their babies, and in another study of twelve societies, all parents but Americans slept with their babies until weaning." WEIRD. Equally weird: I feel almost ashamed to tell people that my babies sleep with me. I've learned to keep that little tidbit to myself just to avoid looks of concern from people who have been convinced by pediatricians--and crib manufacturers--that I'm going to roll over and suffocate my baby. What is our deal! Oh, it's our obsession with fostering independence from day one. I even know someone who said to me, "My job as a parent is to teach my kids life skills. Sleeping is a life skill and he may as well learn it now." This when his son was just a few months old and wailing in his crib for an HOUR.

Perhaps the most important thing I gleaned from this book was the simple realization that almost all traits, both good and bad, are culturally defined. What Dutch parents consider to be an "intelligent" child is far different from what Kipsigis Africans think, or even Americans. What we consider a "difficult" baby is completely different from the way even Italians define it. It makes me look at milestones and all of our other expectations of our babies in a completely different light. The things we take for granted because of the culture in which we are raised, really aren't granted. They're just cultural.

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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Wesley (new) - added it

Wesley This sounds like a fascinating read - thanks, Adrienne!

One of your conclusions was "the simple realization that almost all traits, both good and bad, are culturally defined." Does that include the attitude that "my job as a parent is to teach my kids life skills - sleeping is a life skill and he may as well learn it now?"
I've seen some important benefits of Holden being able to sleep independently (and yes, it took a couple nights of some lengthy crying sessions), like being able to take naps and even sleep over at other people's houses, seamlessly transition to a toddler bed, and more self-awareness and independence while potty training.
One of my favorite things to do, on the other hand, is fall asleep with Holds in the same bed or on the couch, and I've never doubted the benefits of a family bed or sleeping with your infant/child. But does it interrupt your schedule (when you go to bed or wake up)? Is it a nightmare when your kid wets the bed? Is there a difficult "weaning" process when they do need to eventually sleep in their own bed? Is there enough room for everyone to sleep comfortably (I can't sleep comfortably with Amber a lot of times because we both just need so much room - we're upgrading to a king sized bed)? These are just questions I've often had and things that have prevented me from seriously considering a family bed sleeping arrangement.


Adrienne Yes, I definitely think that attitude is a product of the culture which birthed it. I totally agree that independent sleep is a good goal...at a certain point. This person (who I will not name) was referring to his infant son, only a few months old. I just don't see the need to push independent sleep on an infant.

We co-slept with Norah for a year and we loved it. It didn't interrupt our schedule because she just went to bed whenever we did (or if she went to sleep before us, we just put her in our bed and climbed in with her later). We didn't really institute a bed time until she moved into her crib, and by then she had set her own very reasonable schedule. We never had bed-wetting episodes because she was still wearing diapers.

At about a year, yes, the bed got a little crowded because she decided that she needed to sleep with arms and legs completely stretched out. We gave her the boot. The transition was surprisingly smooth. She went into her crib pretty happily. Once I night weaned (she was still nursing), she slept 12 hours straight at night with a 2-hour nap every day.

She never slept over at anyone else's house until she was about two and it was no problem at all. She also has never had a problem with us leaving her anywhere at all (like with babysitters or at church). I personally think that she is very secure in part BECAUSE she was able to develop a safe and strong attachment to us during her infancy. She trusts us.

Also, an added bonus for us is that Norah has literally NEVER come and climbed into bed with us ever since she moved out of it. I hear all these parents talking about their kids coming into their rooms and wanting to sleep with them and that idea is very foreign to us. She stays in her room until morning. Every night.

I originally thought the idea of co-sleeping was really unwise. People always say, "Once you let her in your bed, you'll never get her out." Plus, the pediatricians and the media want us to think that co-sleeping puts our babies at an increased risk of physical harm. I wasn't planning on doing it when Norah was born. It just happened to be the way that all of us got the most sleep. I felt like a bit of a failure for not getting her to sleep on her own during those early weeks, but then I learned that there is a whole camp out there who actually supports it.

And that brings us full circle back to the idea that these things are culturally defined and there are no laws in parenting (well, except for the actual laws, like you can't beat your kid).

Ultimately, I think every family just has to do what works for them. For us, co-sleeping really works because I don't like to hear my babies cry and I do love to cuddle with them and they love to be next to me. So why deny them if it causes no harm (and may in fact be beneficial)?


Adrienne I just wanted to add that I think a lot of things just depend on the child. Norah did really well transitioning to her own bed but I've definitely heard of co-sleeping babies who have a really hard time. I've also heard of non-co-sleeping babies who struggle and those who don't. We'll probably do things similarly with Ezra and he may or may not respond the same way Norah did.


message 4: by Wesley (new) - added it

Wesley I love it, A! I'm totally sold. And the great thing is your (and, it sounds like, the book's)conclusion that there are no rules, because kids are people, not electronics or goldfish. So I know what we did with Holds was perfect for him, and what you did and are doing with Norah and Ezra is perfect for them. I'm excited to see what kind of little person our next little boy is going to be - he just better know that right now mattress real estate is at a premium.

Holds is a urinating machine. Even when we watch what he drinks close to bedtime, he taps into some unseen reservoir of urine and sheets get wet.

I'm naturally skeptical of the media and most federal money pit organizations, so I've never bought into the idea that centuries of co-sleeping is now all the sudden dangerous and ill-advised.


Adrienne Wait, are you guys expecting another little boy?!?! When?


message 6: by Wesley (new) - added it

Wesley First week of November! We just found out the gender a few days ago. We're sort of slow to update everyone we know. Amber did the Facebook announcement thing a couple days ago, but I haven't yet. I wanted a girl, but am by no means resigned to having another boy. Boys I know, and we have all the clothes (Holds was born in November, so they'll work out seasonally), and I'm pumped for Holds to have a little brother. I have one and I couldn't imagine how life would have been without a little rough-and-tumble playmate growing up. So we're so happy about another boy! Oliver Fitzgerald will be his name ("Oliver" after Dickens' Oliver Twist (my favorite is Great Expectations, but we couldn't name him Pip), and "Fitzgerald" after F. Scott Fitzgerald (my second favorite American author, after Salinger) - we're bigger on literary names than family names around here). I wanted his middle name to be Yaz, after Carl Yastrzemski - the 2nd best left fielder for the Red Sox ever (behind Ted Williams, of course) - but Amber thought Yaz sounded like a birth control pill.


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