Drifting Off

Jason Raish

One particularly strange feature of middle-class family life is the way we train our children to sleep. “Go to your room,” we tell even very young children, “and stay there all night.” We have invented elaborate techniques to support this supposedly essential aspect of child development, implementing them at great emotional cost to all parties involved. For the parents: agonizing decisions about when and whether to comfort a crying child, bleary-eyed squabbles about which parent takes a turn in the middle of the night. For the kids: fear of being alone in the dark, and resentment of the adults who, in the words of historian Peter Stearns, “hovered about urging sleep when none was wanted.” The resulting frustration seems to have reached a boiling point, as evidenced by the best-selling mock-bedtime book, Go the F— to Sleep.

Why do we do it?

For all the tenacity with which we cling to the ideal of solitary childhood sleep, it’s a historical anomaly. This system of sleeping—adults in one room, each child walled off in another—was common practice exactly nowhere before the late nineteenth century, when it took hold in Europe and North America. Even in wealthy families that could afford to spread out, children generally slept in the same room with nurses or siblings. Indeed, solitary childhood sleep seems cruel in those parts of the world where co-sleeping is still practiced, including developed countries such as Japan.

But as industrial wealth spread through the Western economies, so did a sense that individual privacy—felt most intently at night—was a hallmark of “civilization.” Great pains were taken to relieve nighttime overcrowding and provide more privacy in factory boardinghouses, which were thought to breed disease and immorality through the proximity of sleeping bodies.

Ensuring privacy at night was not just a health concern; it was also a matter of defining proper “whiteness” or “Europeanness.” While reformers endorsed solitary sleep as healthful and moral, they noted that “savages” slept collectively—and this practice was somehow to blame for underdevelopment of the non-Western world. This new insistence on individual sleeping was reinforced in psychology and pediatrics through the twentieth century.

There are, of course, good reasons for children to have their own bedrooms. It’s more practical for adults to pursue nighttime leisure in an area where children aren’t sleeping; it’s easier to set everyone on a proper schedule for work and school when they can all retire to different spaces at different times; and parental intimacy may increase without little ones around. Doctors advise parents not to share soft mattresses with infants.

I should also admit that I raised my kids to sleep alone. At the time, there seemed to be no reasonable alternative. But in fact there are economic, environmental, and emotional benefits of sleeping together. Spreading out requires large homes that are expensive to build, to heat, and to power with electricity. Our sleep, in other words, has a large carbon footprint. Far from being a backward practice, co-sleeping, or at least sleeping in close proximity, may be a more enlightened, sustainable use of space and natural resources.

The most obvious benefit might be knocking down the figurative walls that separate us. By the time we get the kids to stay in their rooms, they never want to let us back in, and “get out of my room!” replaces “go the f— to sleep!” as the American “goodnight.”

By contrast, as anthropologists Carol Worthman and Ryan Brown have argued, family structures in co-sleeping societies tend to be closer-knit, with less intergenerational conflict. If we brought our children up to share space with each other and their parents at night, they might grow up to fight a bit less, share a bit more, and care for others as much as they care for themselves.

Benjamin Reiss is a professor of English and the author of Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World. This essay originally appeared in the LA Times.

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