Lately, I've been spending quite a lot of time thinking about parenting in the cross-cultural context. (As you probably have guessed, I just wrote that line to make myself sound smart. I fear that I have succeeded only in making myself sound douchy.)
An idea has been germinating - I'm wondering if many of the notions that we as Westerners hold to be fundamental biological facts about baby-rearing are, in fact, cultural constructs.
Let me explain.
Stella and I have been going to a fantastic mother-baby drop-in center in our city and we've gotten to know a few Japanese mothers. In the process, I've been learning that there are significant differences in basic aspect of baby care.
It is completly normal to co-sleep in Japan, and to do so for several years
One woman said to me, "I've heard that in America, you put babies in their own room in their own bed when they're one year old!" Remarking on the practice of solo-baby-sleep clearly denotes the practice as unusual, even shocking in the Japanese context. In fact it is so odd that she couldn't even comprehend that many of us actually put babies in their own rooms from day one. In this woman's view, babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers need to be close to their mothers, all night long. In the Western view, babies need independence.
Yet, still, Japanese children and Western children both end up sleeping. Eventually.
Bedtime is much MUCH later in Japan
Lately I've been obsessed with sleep issues (because we're having some MAJOR ONES, let me tell you) and so I've read almost everything there is to read about baby sleep, and one theme I keep coming across is that babies need to go to bed early. Like at 6:30 or 7:00 PM early. When I told one mother that I put my baby to bed at 6:30, she thought I was insane. Japanese babies got to bed at around 9:00 or 10:00. I'm not exactly clear why, but I imagine that it has something to do with the fact that men come home from work incredibly late; if there's any hope for baby-father bonding, the kid has to stay up late, too. The interesting thing is that Japanese babies still wake up at about 6:30 am. According to Western conventional wisdom these babies should be slobbering messes of over-tired cranky screamy-ness.
But they're not. They're just fine.
Nighttime wake-ups are just accepted
When I was complaining to one mother about the fact that my baby woke up about a million times per night, she looked at me blankly. Like I was saying isn't it annoying that the sky is blue. But I really wanted validation, after all, I'd been surviving 8+ wakings per night. So I pressed on and confessed that I was thinking of doing a bit of night weening. She then looked at me like I was the biggest jerk in the world. So, I guess in Japan, having a baby who wakes up a billion times per night is just normal. Eventually these wakeful babies grow into sleepful children.
Feeding practices are different, too
It is more or less accepted that you breastfeed in Japan, and the country is really really supportive of nursing mothers. Most big department stores will have breastfeeding rooms for mothers, and Baby Stations (i.e. places to change and feed your baby) can be found everywhere. It's great. When I went back to North America with a three-month old baby and found myself in downtown Toronto with no place to nurse and change a diaper, I was shocked. Spoiled.
No one would dream of introducing solids to a baby before at least six months, and then when they do, it's all homemade food. I wouldn't even know where to find little jars of baby food, and rice cereal just doesnt exist here. Could you imagine raising a baby in the West without pabulum?
But these little babies grow up fine and healthy, iron-fortified cereal, be dammed!
Even what you talk about is different
One of the first questions that western parents ask about my daughter is, "Is she doing X yet?" It seems that there's a sense of urgency in reaching those milestones, as if doing so faster and with more efficiency than the baby next door carries some sort of moral weight. Not so in Japan, from what I can tell. Most often, people ask what my daughter likes to eat. Occasionally, there'll be a question about how big she is, or how much she weighs (she is a giant compared to Japanese babies). No mention of milestones is ever made.
What's the point of making these observations? Well, I do find these little factoids to be interesting. But on a deeper level, I find these differences reassuring. There's a lot of fear-mongering and dogmatism attached to parenting in the West. And it's stressing me out. I'm trying to do everything perfectly; I'm knowingly fighting a losing battle. It's nice to know that there are cultures that employ drastically different child-raising practices yet still manage to turn out healthy kids. Despite what Dr. Sears, Weissbluth or Dr. Ferber say, there are as many ways to raise babies as there are babies to be raised. Hell, even those crack babies turned out okay.