When my daughter was an infant and would wake in the middle of the night, part of my routine to lull her back to sleep involved lying her on my lap while cradling her head in my hands, and swaying my legs side to side. I would watch as her soft cheeks tapped back and forth between the palms of my hands, her eyes growing heavy with sleep, and think two simple things:
1. She’s beautiful.
2. Please, for the love of god, go to sleep.
The sleepless nights that come along with parenthood have a way at tearing our emotions into two very opposite directions. My husband and I always say that we have never felt such an intense combo of adoration and pure frustration as we did during so many of those 2 am wake-up calls. Many parents feel guilty for having those feelings, but you would be hard pressed to find a parent who hasn’t ridden that roller coaster.
That’s perhaps why Go The F*ck To Sleep, a hilarious (and apt as hell) book by Adam Mansbach, was so popular. It did, after all, capture a feeling that every parent has experienced while putting their little ones to bed. Put simply—“I know you're not thirsty. That's bullshit. Stop lying.”
And that sentiment is a universal one. That’s why I was so grateful to speak to these parents of a various cultural backgrounds who help to normalize it all. Because whether they share your sleep concerns or have a few rituals that have worked for them, there's one thread that runs through all of their stories: They've been there, they feel your pain, and there is, indeed, light at the end of the tunnel. So here are the myriad ways—some that might feel very unfamiliar or even unsafe to American parents, with our military-grade parenting regulations—people around the world get their babies to go to sleep.
Milana Perepyolkina, Salt Lake City, Utah (of Russian and Gypsy descent)
The use of herbal teas in Russian culture is very popular. There are specific teas for each medical condition, for example, chamomile tea is used for relaxation and deep sleep. Children are given a cup of chamomile tea with a teaspoon of honey before bed if they have trouble sleeping. When a child is already in bed, one of the family members—usually grandparents since grandparents stay with the family—reads fairy tales or sings songs.
I’m also part Gypsy, where it is tradition for family to have one bed for parents and all their children. Children don't have trouble falling asleep because they feel safe. When I visited the Gypsy side of my family as a child, I was surprised to see that the whole family had one bed. I practiced both of these traditions with my daughter. When she was small, she slept in a crib that was connected to my bed and, until she was a teenager, I told her bedtime stories and sang songs. I also gave her chamomile tea for sleep when she needed it. She’s an adult now, and still drinks it if she needs deep sleep.
Mohit and Sugandhi Sachanandani, Hyderabad, India
A popular way of making a baby sleep in a lot of places in the south of India, is by placing the baby in a traditional hammock which is made of the mother’s saree. This comforts the baby while sleeping because he or she can recognize the mother’s scent. Then we gently swing the baby and sing a lullaby. It was a daunting task to get our daughter, Trisha, to rest or even to lie on her back for a while when she was a baby. She’d wake up every few hours whether it was day or night.
Trisha did have a specific bedtime routine. Before we put her to bed, I would free her room of any sunlight but make sure it was not completely dark. I would then hold her close while rocking her on a chair. My husband and I sang lullabies while rocking her on the chair or the hammock. She loves listening to those same lullabies even to this day—she’s now six.
As a baby, she always wanted to be held close and feel our presence. So sometimes after laying her in the crib, I would cover her with my shawl, instead of a blanket. Even the slightest sound would wake her up, so everyone in the house would tiptoe around her while she was sleeping. But the soothing sounds from an app called White Noise—the sound of the rain or the stream flowing—eventually helped her sleep better.
Rama Refaa, Dubai
I have a 5-year-old daughter and 2-month-old son. The best thing I am currently doing with my son is waking him up to change his [diaper], feed him, and then put him back to sleep. My mom’s hack is to give kids fennel seeds or chamomile tea to help them relax for sleep, but I haven’t tried that yet. On some of my longest, most sleepless nights, I've used a hair dryer as a quick form of white noise for them; my mom also used this trick. I'm a huge fan of white noise apps that mimic soothing sounds such as water, rain, and sea wind.
We don’t overthink sleep in Dubai, though. All of my friends and I know that the first few months will be hard and the baby might sleep very little, so we don’t expect much more than that. You just prepare yourself and learn not to compare your children with others and their sleep habits.
Leslie Fischer, Chicago, Illinois Via Germany
Germans believe that kids should sleep in a sleep sack, which allows a baby to feel cozy and safe. I have used these with my own kids and it works great. German mothers also like to put their scarves near a baby who is falling asleep so the baby smells the mom's scent and feels secure—this has worked great for my four boys.
Germans also sleep in cold rooms at night and open the windows to get frische luft, or fresh air into a room. I thought this was weird at first, but now I love a blast of cold, fresh air in my room before bed.
Ana Szabo, London, England/Born in Ukraine
Ukrainian culture revolves around kids being nurtured and cared for, but it lacks a lot of empathy toward the mother as an individual. She is expected to pause her life, hobbies, and work to care for a child. The culture of shared responsibility where fathers are just as involved as a mother in education and care of a child is just beginning to emerge. It can be tough to take full responsibility for a getting a child to sleep.
Before giving birth, I never worried about my baby sleeping. I think I thought the proverbial instincts would kick in and it would be as pretty as Pampers advertisements. But it was only a year ago that I was sleeping approximately three hours a day. My daughter, Anett Elizabeth, constantly needed comfort and was crying throughout the night. We tried all the methods available to try and soothe her to sleep. We had a routine, which involved play, bath, and reading a book, but to no avail.
I was encouraged by others to wait it out, and told she would start sleeping through the night when we stopped breastfeeding. But she started a bottle at eight months and still woke up at night, sometimes every 45 minutes. I was so tired and restless that I started to get sick with viruses. On a separate visit to a doctor regarding my flu, she became really concerned about my health. When I told her that Anett still did not sleep through the night at 18 months, she told me we needed to sleep train her. I never thought of that as an option since everyone encouraged me otherwise. People would say things to me like, “Sleep training was invented by people who hate kids” or tell me I would lose my child’s trust forever.
But I wish I would have done it sooner—it took us two nights for Anett to get used to falling asleep independently. I always felt that I had to justify using such a “cruel" method and thought I could talk her into sleep. That never happened.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox weekly.