Children's Sleep: Sketching Historical Change

By Stearns, Peter N.; Rowland, Perrin et al. | Journal of Social History, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Children's Sleep: Sketching Historical Change


Stearns, Peter N., Rowland, Perrin, Giarnella, Lori, Journal of Social History


Sleep is not a conventional historical topic. It is after all a normally silent and unrecorded activity, which means that records of past sleep patterns are hardly abundant. It is also in the largest sense a human imperative: all people need sleep, though individual experiences diverge, and it might seem unlikely that major changes in sleep occur over time. Yet we also know, from cross-cultural study, that some aspect of sleeps can vary, not only from one individual to the next but in terms of larger cultural standards. One variance involves the extent to which sleep problems are identified and highlighted. The Japanese, for example, do not worry about insomnia the way Americans do; sleeplessness is not an identified issue nor the subject of much professional consultation in Japan. If cultures vary, so probably do times - which means that historical research can produce some findings that shed light on points of change in aspects of sleep and that therefore provide historical perspective on a major human phenomenon. This essay introduces one such possibility toward furthering the historical investigation of sleep and also associating changes in sleep with a major shift in American social experience. The focus is on new worries about sleep that developed by the 1920s in the United States, translating into this activity some of the wider new tensions of American life and, perhaps, exacerbating these personal tensions in turn.

The brasher social historians have long contended that any human activity subject to change is open to historical inquiry, and can be illuminated by this inquiry. Sleep may prove no exception, and this article intends to help expose the subject to wider historical examination, while pinpointing one specific set of changes. Some aspects of American sleep habits altered considerably between the 19th and 20th centuries - the source of new levels of concern. Exploring this shift helps explain subsequent patterns and problems while inviting fuller understanding of how, why and to what extent 19th-century sleep was so different. After establishing the surprisingly distinctive 19th-century baseline, we move to the first signs of change, the change in full flower, and the causes, before turning to specific consequences and wider ramifications. This is a first effort at an inherently difficult topic, another case where historians can move into territories thus far dominated by psychologists and scientists by showing variability over time. We will admittedly learn far more, in this effort, about attitudes toward sleep than about sleep itself, but from this starting point more mature probes can readily emerge.

Sleep issues did not loom large during the middle decades of the 19th century. Manuals for parents, produced in abundance, simply did not deal with children's sleep - in marked contrast to their counterparts by the 1920s.(1) Medical researchers did not study sleep extensively - another point noted when sleep research began to accelerate a half-century later. Popular health columns in women's magazines addressed sleep, whether for adults or for children, only rarely. Whether actual sleeping was easier in the 19th century than it would be later on - as some 20th-century commentators would implicitly claim - one point is clear: it was less contested and less orchestrated.

Most comments that did address sleep, including children's sleep, focused on physical health issues and on material arrangements. Recurrent snippets of advice in health columns in Godey's Lady's Book and the Ladies' Home Journal dealt primarily with health precautions during sleep, rather than with sleep itself. Thus there was discussion of how much covering to place on the child, with concern both about overheating and underprotection. Cold feet were to be avoided, and some authorities recommended that this was the final matter to deal with before leaving a child to sleep; "neglect of this has often resulted in a dangerous attack of croup, diptheria, or fatal sore throat. …

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