Sleep is a difficult topic to grapple with historically, and at present the most interesting historical episode involves relatively recent change. Child-rearing manuals in nineteenth-century America did not deal with sleep as a problem, despite or perhaps because of extensive health advice in other categories. Surely, individual parents faced children with unusual sleep difficulties, but a sense of a larger category of issues did not emerge. Snippets of advice, for example in American women's magazines, suggested that relatively short periods of formal sleep were required of children–six to eight hours were often mentioned, which confirms the impression that sleep was not viewed as a source of problems.
Analyzing a lack of concern is a challenging task historically. Several factors help explain why nineteenth-century adults (and probably their counterparts in earlier periods as well) did not pay much attention to children's sleep in general. First, naps were common, for many adults as well as children. Historians have noted how adult sleep patterns before modern times were less rigidly defined than they are now, and children's sleep benefited from a similarly relaxed definition. Where sleep was an issue, for individual children, many parents undoubtedly used opiates or alcohol to help. The absence of much artificial light reduced nighttime stimulation and facilitated getting children off to bed.
Concern about adult sleep began to increase toward the end of the nineteenth century, as part of the attack on stress disorders such as the then-popular disease, neurasthenia, and the general tensions seen in modern life. Growing use of electric lights and the popularization of caffeine drinks added to the emergence of sleep as a problem. Some discussions began to spill over into the treatment of children, but it was not until the 1920s that child-rearing manuals picked up the question of children's sleep as a standard topic. From that point onward, sections of all the major manuals, plus publications like PARENTS MAGAZINE, were devoted to sleep. Pediatricians also dispensed sleep advice, and doctors took the lead in recommending increasing amounts of sleep, from infancy onward. Getting children to bed became a major daily ritual for parents and children alike, a regular opportunity for contests between freedom and authority. For their part, child experts, headed by the behaviorists, urged that set bedtimes were a vital part of the socialization of children, as well as the protection for their health. New rituals such as daily bathing, story reading, mass-produced toys like the new TEDDY BEARS, or night lights were variously employed.
Why did sleep standards escalate, and why did sleep become a more significant issue? Experts were clearly eager to promote a variety of problems to which they had solutions, and the inclusion of sleep obviously qualified as yet another area where well-meaning parents needed outside help. Growing psychological interest in dreams, and research on the troubled dreams of children, provided an additional scientific basis for sleep concerns. New distractions, such as the radio, plus the noise of modern urban life may have made sleep, in fact, more difficult to achieve than before. Schooling requirements reduced the opportunity for naps except for the very young. Most children, like most adults, now had to be taught to sleep intensively for a period of time, rather than indulging more on the spur of the moment.
It was also true that children's sleep arrangements had been changing in the United States, from the late nineteenth century onward. Babies were increasingly placed in cribs at a fairly young age, rather than rocked in cradles as their parents worked or relaxed. Learning to sleep alone was an important modern discipline, and cribs allowed parents to put infants in a separate space. As adults had new recreations in the evening, they looked for ways to free themselves from on-the-spot care of sleeping children. Older children graduated from cribs to beds and were not as likely to sleep with other siblings. Birth rate reductions meant that there were fewer siblings, and experts urged that children were better off with their own, separate rooms. These specific changes in sleeping arrangements, aimed at a new level of individuation, may well have created the kinds of new sleep problems to which the child-rearing literature responded.
Specific recommendations about getting children to sleep oscillated during the twentieth century. The strict regimen of the behaviorist approach in the 1920s was modified in the mid-twentieth century by more permissive experts such as DR. BENJAMIN SPOCK. But adult concern about children's sleep persisted at a fairly high level. Many children who learned of sleep as a problem in their own early years may have been encouraged to worry about sleep in new ways even as they grew to adulthood. The implications of the twentieth-century change in approach to children's sleep, at least in the United States, remain a fascinating area of study.
Ekirch, A. Roger. 2001. "Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles." The American Historical Review 106, no.2: 343.
Fishbein, Morris. 1926. "The Tired Child." Hygeia: 406–407
Stearns, Peter N., Perrin Rowland, and Lori Giarnella. 1996. "Children's Sleep: Sketching Historical Change." Journal of Social History 30: 345–366
PETER N. STEARNS