The Lullaby's Too Late|Penn State

Nancy Marie Brown
September 01, 1995

No matter how soothing your singing, Baby may have trouble sleeping if it's been a busy day.

"American parents want to create for their children a stimulating daytime environment with higher levels of intimacy, yet want a calm baby at night," says Sara Harkness. "This push and pull means babies may have harder times establishing restful routines."

baby yawning

Harkness, an associate professor of human development and anthropology at Penn State, compared 36 American and 54 Dutch families with children ranging from 6 months to 4.5 years. She and her coauthors found the Dutch children to get more rest (2 hours more per day at 6 months of age, decreasing to 20 minutes more by age 5), yet it was the American parents who spent the most time concocting tricks to get Baby to sleep. And who were much more likely to believe that only some (precious) infants were naturally easy sleepers.

Harkness and her coauthors believe the difference is what happens during the day.

The Dutch parents stressed rest and routine, rather than stimulation. They believe that children need to learn to organize their own behavior and to learn to "entertain" themselves, so as to become "independent." Dutch parents talked to and touched their babies less than the Americans did, and were not as likely to bring Baby along to the older children's soccer practices or piano lessons.

In America, Harkness says, "A baby has to adapt to taking irregular trips with mom or dad. This scheduling can 'jazz up' infants and young children, making it harder for them to regulate themselves at night."

Sara Harkness, Ph.D., is associate professor in the College of Health and Human Development, 110 Henderson Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0102. Her coauthors are Charles Super, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State; Constance H. Keefer of the Harvard Medical School, and Nathalie van Tijen and Ellen van der Vlugt of Leiden University. The study is reported in a chapter in the forthcoming Parents' Cultural Belief Systems (Guilford Press, New York) and was presented at the 1995 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Fulbright commission, Penn State, and the University of Leiden. Reported by Scott Turner.

Last Updated September 01, 1995