I had an interesting conversation today. Somehow I ended up explaining the concept of baby ‘sleep training’ with an African mama of eight, who is also my sons grandmother (Bibi in Swahili). It went something like this:
Bibi and I were sitting in my living room, watching my son (almost 13 months) play with his older cousin, when the conversation turned to sleep.
Me: He doesn’t sleep a lot, he wakes a few times at night, and only has one short nap during the day. Did your babies all sleep well?
Bibi: Oh, all babies, they differ. Some sleep a lot, some do not. Every baby, they are different. They will all sleep in their own time.
Me: In Australia, some people train their babies to sleep at night.
Bibi: (looks confused)
|My boy with his Bibi|
Me: They put their babies to bed in a cot in a separate room,
Bibi: They don’t sleep with them?
Me: No, they usually put them in their own room, sometimes from only six months old. I don’t do that, my baby sleeps with me because it is easy for me to feed him back to sleep when he is just lying there next to me.
Bibi: Yes, sometimes they wake and just want to suck. And having them in your bed, that is where they feel the love.
Me: Yes, I think he feels comforted when he is snuggling next to me. So anyway, what some people do to train their babies to sleep is to put them in a cot in their own room, and when the baby wakes they don’t pick them up or feed them.
Bibi: (looks confused and a little shocked)
Me: They figure this way the baby will learn not to wake up because they won’t have their needs met. Some mothers might go in to the babies room for a few minutes, patting the baby to settle them, then leave again. If the baby cries they just wait outside the room and go in some minutes later, but still don’t pick them up. They continue this until the baby goes back to sleep.
Bibi: They do not pick up their babies?
Bibi (looks a bit disgusted by this thought)
Me: I have even heard about a doctor who tells mothers to put their baby to bed at a certain time, close the door and don’t go in if the baby cries and to not go in until the morning, unless the baby is asleep so they don’t know their mama came in.
Bibi: (Looking absolutely horrified by now) Why do they not attend to their baby?
Me: I don’t know, maybe they prefer to sleep. Don’t worry, I would never do that to my baby!
I hope I haven’t given Bibi nightmares now by sharing this information with her. We discussed more on the topic, and also the stark difference in the way babies are treated in our countries, which I noticed when I returned to Australia the first time after being in Tanzania for about a year. To come from a country where babies are content, normally being held or carried on someones back, having their needs met promptly, to then arriving in Australia to see babies crying in prams, not able to even see their mothers and their cries being ignored was quite a shock. I think it’s safe to say that ‘baby training’ is a relatively modern western concept that will never catch on in Africa.