Baby Sleep Lessons from Paleolithic Parents

Are the lifestyles of our ancient parental ancestors the key to restful babies and well-adjusted kids?

Here’s the narrative we tell ourselves about the way we sleep: Before modernity, we got more of it. Naps throughout the day. Curling into sleep at the first signs of darkness. Segmented sleep during the night—alertly caring for a crying baby, heading to the bathroom, tending to fire—as opposed to a single block of a consecutive snooze.

Then with the fluorescent flash of 100-watt incandescence, modernity shortened our natural slumber and “normal circadian rhythms” in exchange for the unhindered eight-hour night, Just as Paleo dieters assume a mismatch between human biology and the food culture of the post-industrial West, Paleo parents assume that modern parenting sleep habits are equally unhealthy in supporting child development.

But did Paleolithic peoples actually set their sleep cycles to the sun, nurse babies on demand, co-sleep for multiple years, and “attach” their offspring to their bodies throughout the day?

“There is really good science to back up [some of the] claims made by people in the Paleo parenting movement,” says Alyssa Crittenden, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who studies the Hadza, a group of contemporary hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. Because the group is virtually unaffected by modern industrial life, Crittenden says, they are an effective model for how Paleolithic parents may have assumed caretaking and child sleep patterns.  

Researchers have found most groups of people that still practice foraging lifestyles, like the Hadza population, often carry their babies in cloth slings for the majority of the day from birth through 2 to 3 years old. Crittenden has commented on the high degree of physical contact and immediate response to crying compared to Western babies.

Baby Wearing and Skin-To-Skin

The universality of baby-wearing and skin-to-skin contact in such societies is the backbone for modern attachment parenting philosophies. And in a 1986 study from McGill University, researchers concluded that six-week-old infants cried markedly less when their parents wore their baby as often as possible.

It’s also likely that Paleolithic parents slept in a family bed—dad, mom, and kids on a thin mat or animal skin depending on where the family existed in the world. Naturally, the baby fed on-demand, both night and day, leaving the bed only when mom did and napping at equally random intervals while in a sling throughout the day. While Western families traditionally avoid the practice, there is some evidence that it can lead to more well-adjusted children according to James McKenna, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory, who has observed benefits to these “ancestral patterns” in the sleep clinic. Benefits to infants’ physiological and psychological well-being and development included increased calmness, a more frequent ability to solve problems independently and a greater willingness to meet new children.

So would society consist of more well-adjusted adults if more parents assumed the Paleo approach? Probably not, according to the research behind Marlene Zuk’s book Paleofantasy. The evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota is skeptical of idealizing the Paleolithic lifestyle for parenting, and she critiques the fear that deviating from a naturalized “ideal” produces deviant children. Such assumptions, she argues, ignore the reality that the human brain and body are incredibly adaptable and inherently flexible.

Baby Boxes

While anthropologists and doctors may disagree on the best way to sleep with an infant, Crittenden points to the middle ground. In Europe, baby boxes circumvent the potentially dangerous sleeping arrangements of pillow-top mattresses, blankets, and pillows. Similarly,  bed-side sleepers and bassinets that attach to the side of mom’s and dad’s bed are both ways to incur the benefits of the ancestral family bed-sharing without the modern-day hazards.

It’s essential to remember that our ancestors were hemmed in by space, safety, and resources. They had no other choice than to co-sleep and breastfeed on demand. Yet we’ve been gifted a myriad of options to choose what best fulfills the needs of our families, and we can trust that our rhythms will keep time with our modern pace.

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