Posted in Baby sleep, Blog, Caring for your baby, Emma, Featured, Life as a mom, Mother, Wife, Woman

African babies don’t cry (or, why my daughter sleeps in our bed)


This is really about adults sleeping with babies and less about Africa, but the two, for me, are forever linked.


I spent a few short months* in Africa when I was in my early twenties and stayed with two generous families in Namibia – in the capitol, Windhoek, and the rural North. When I am asked why I put my baby on the toilet to go to the bathroom (sometimes) or why we share a bed, I trace my attachment parenting tendencies to the time I spent in Namibia.


The family I stayed with in The North (that’s what locals call Oshiwambo land bordering Angola) had many children and adults living on one parcel of land. When I was dropped off, most of the family was away. Wearing only black beaded necklaces, two small children (one around 2 years and the other, roughly 14 months)  and their aunt greeted me when I arrived. Over the course of a few weeks, I watched these babies both use the “toilet” – Number 1 in a concrete latrine with 3 walls that we all used for “showering” (pouring a bucket of water over ourselves that we retrieved from the well) and Number 2 in a hole that was dug between the living area and the fields just for them because they were too small to grab a hoe in the morning and walk into the toilet area in the field to dig a hole. They did not wear diapers. The family did not own any toilet paper.


At night, these two children slept with older brothers, sisters and cousins. They had both moved out of their parents’ bed, but there was never a question that they would sleep with someone. Teens got their own beds (if there were enough to go around) and the boys went into their own hut to sleep together once they started going through puberty. Babies slept mostly with their mamas if the babies were still nursing and if their mamas were around. Otherwise, they slept with older female relatives. A childless aunt was a popular choice, unless she was childless due to mental illness or general surliness.


There is this thing some people say, “African babies don’t cry”. African babies absolutely do cry. All babies do. But, in my experience, African babies don’t cry alone at night or even sleep in a room by themselves. I doubt you would ever hear, in the communities I visited, anyone discuss Crying It Out or spoiling their babies. And, thus, in my experience, African babies cry less often and for shorter duration than *some* American babies. Perhaps because children take on responsibilities fairly early in these large families (they have no choice, there is a lot to get done) and, therefore, grow up FAST, or because their mothers recognize the incredibly brief nature of their children’s babyhoods and their own lives – as death is such a salient, every day thing in Southern Africa, that they sleep together. And sometimes nurse a them a “long” time. And hold them a lot. All behaviors we tend to analyze, belabor and debate here in the States.


I knew before I even got pregnant that my future baby would sleep with me. All the reading and talking with like-minded parents reinforced this plan, but I’ll be honest, the idea originated in my heart more than anywhere else. I just knew that our bed was the right place for her.

I began by sleeping in my own parents bed. I travelled halfway across the world and watched some other babies sleep in their parents beds. And then I had a kid and she now sleeps in my bed. Because it’s safe. Because I already had a bed and I didn’t have a crib and an extra bed would take up valuable space in my 900 square foot house. Because it’s warm. Because it makes it easier for me to breastfeed and get back to sleep. Because it allows me to check on her, even while I am sleeping. Because it’s cozy and delicious and fleeting.


It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that the bed better be on the floor. The other adult, if there is one, has to be on board with baby-in-the-bed. Everyone needs to lay off the booze/prescription painkillers/recreational drugs before bedtime. And all that stuff. But after you check off the safety list, I think it’s a pretty sweet arrangement.


Anything can be normalized. For me, sleeping with an infant in bed is completely normal and for you, sleeping without an infant in bed may be equally normal. Neither is best or better. But I savor every minute and I take real and mental pictures/videos of all the snuggling, yawning, sleep smiles and sleep laughing (my god it’s cute) because all too soon she will be gone from my bed and then my house and I will miss every sleepy moment.


*I will say that I did not properly live there (with permanent residence), nor do I speak for any African or even in observance of any African outside Namibia. I think that too often Africans are all lumped together (usually as lion hunting, tribal, non-English speakers) by White folks who briefly visited or saw pictures of them. There are as many kinds of African families as there are American, French, Chinese and Canadian ones. I speak only from my limited personal experience. Ok, public service announcement officially over.

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  1. Thanks for the link 🙂
    I enjoyed this article!

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m curious, what did they do with the babies in Africa when they woke up crying at night to get them back to sleep? Did they always breastfeed them no mater what, even if they woke up crying 10 times in a night, or did they get up and rock them, or other?

    If there are many people sleeping in a room how do they deal with the noise of a baby crying at night? Do the others sleeping in the room get used to it and not wake up or do they wake up but not mind? I’ve seen little written on this.


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