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Understanding Infant Sleep Practices in Dutch and American Families

Understanding Infant Sleep Practices in Dutch and American Families

Navigating the early challenges of parenthood, particularly when establishing a sleep-wake cycle for infants, varies significantly across cultures. The study "Getting the Baby on a Schedule: Dutch and American Mothers’ Ethnotheories and the Establishment of Diurnal Rhythms in Early Infancy" offers an in-depth comparison of how Dutch and American families approach this universal challenge, revealing the profound impact of cultural beliefs on parenting practices.

Research methodology and findings

The study engaged 33 Dutch and 41 American mothers of infants aged 2 and 6 months, utilizing a mixed-methods approach that included interviews and time allocation diaries to explore the establishment of diurnal rhythms. This approach facilitated a nuanced examination of cultural theories in parenting, particularly focusing on sleep, feeding, outdoor time, and activities.

Statistical analysis revealed stark contrasts in the regularity of daily schedules between Dutch and American infants. Dutch babies exhibited more consistent sleep patterns and feeding times, underscoring the cultural emphasis on regularity. This structured approach was notably different from the more flexible, baby-led schedules preferred by American mothers, suggesting profound cultural variances in the conceptualization of infant care.

Direct insights from parents

A revealing aspect of the study is the differing sleep-promoting practices between Dutch and American mothers. Notably, nearly a third of U.S. mothers (29%) reported a practice almost unheard of among Dutch mothers: bringing the baby into their own bed to help them sleep. One U.S. mother of a 2-month-old shared her experience, highlighting a common scenario:

"Um…because he was fussing, what I will do sometimes is I will nurse him, I will change him, and if he is still fussing, I will go to bed with him and I will lie down beside him, and usually within ten minutes he will be out like a light; and so I was dead tired so he slept in the bed with me, and when my husband came to bed he put him in his crib and then he slept. So that was a fairly typical day."

This practice reflects a broader theme of adaptability in American parenting, prioritizing immediate responses to the baby's needs over establishing a strict schedule.

American families adjusting daily routines

The study further explores how American mothers often adjust their daily activities—such as work, errands, or personal rest—to accommodate their baby's sleep patterns. This flexibility is a hallmark of the American approach, where the baby's emerging natural rhythms dictate the parents' schedules. For instance, one mother of a 6-month-old humorously commented on the household rule:

"Because that's kind of the rule in the house, you can take a nap but only when the baby is napping…You're up when the baby wakes up."

Another mother explained her approach to balancing work and the baby's sleep:

"When he sleeps…I can go get housework done or go get work done. So I'd rather do that than like force him to get back up and then [a] chance of him not sleeping when I need to work. So, I'm just kinda going with the flow a little bit."

Dutch emphasis on structure and soothing

In contrast, Dutch mothers, adhering to a cultural ethos that values the "three R's" (rest, regularity, and cleanliness), are shown to prioritize establishing a predictable schedule for their infants. This emphasis on regularity is not just a preference but a deeply ingrained belief in the importance of structured daily routines for the baby's overall development and well-being. In interviews, Dutch mothers more frequently described using structured, calming practices to establish a regular sleep pattern for their infants. Direct quotes from participants enrich the study's findings. A Dutch mother shared,

"I think regularity is important for children, and actually also for yourself,"

highlighting the cultural value placed on structured routines. Another detailed her bedtime routine, emphasizing the role of consistency and soothing activities:

"I usually first change him into his pajamas, then I'll sing a bit and hold him and cuddle him and he has a kind of wooden doll with a feather hanging from the ceiling over his bed and…if you pull it a bit then…well he just loves that! So then he will look at me in this way, almost like he's sort of following it with me. And a little music box; those are the things I basically always…always do. And at someone else's house, I will at least always gently put his pajamas on, cuddle a bit and sing a song."

Cultural practices for infant care

The research links cultural models to the actual achievement of stable diurnal rhythms by elaborating a description of real‐life practices. They highlight that humans are unique in that our environmental cues are largely socially constructed, and therefore can vary quite dramatically across individuals or populations. Developmental outcomes are seen in the model as the product of the practices, not the direct result of the beliefs.

Theoretical model of Parental Ethnotheories, Practices, and Outcomes.
Theoretical model of Parental Ethnotheories, Practices, and Outcomes.

Source: Adapted from Harkness, S., & Super, C. M. (2012). The cultural organization of children's environments. In L. C. Mayes & M. Lewis (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of environment in human development, pp. 498–516. New York: Cambridge University Press.


This comparison between Dutch and American parenting practices not only reveals the cultural nuances of infant care but also highlights the importance of embracing and respecting diverse approaches to parenting.

As a mother of two and the developer of a parenting app, my journey through motherhood and the creation of a platform to support parents globally has shown me that, in the quiet of the night, we are all connected by our shared desires for our children's well-being. The study "Getting the Baby on a Schedule: Dutch and American Mothers’ Ethnotheories and the Establishment of Diurnal Rhythms in Early Infancy" goes beyond just providing data and analysis; it showcases a variety of parenting practices, each influenced by cultural beliefs and personal experiences. It encourages us to explore, adapt, and, perhaps most importantly, to understand one another a bit better. So, here's to navigating the nighttime, armed with the collective wisdom of mothers from around the world, in search of that peaceful sleep we all yearn for.

Drawing from these insights, we've updated Onoco with features that cater not only to parents who prefer a baby-led routine, as favoured by the majority of American families mentioned in the study (see our Insights section and Onoco AI predictions),

daily patterns - insights section
daily patterns - insights section

but also to those who prefer parent-led routines, like the Dutch families highlighted in the research (who will find the Daily Plan section, custom daily routines, and AI-adjusted schedules especially useful).

daily routine / daily schedule
daily routine / daily schedule

In conclusion, "Getting the Baby on a Schedule" provides invaluable insights into how cultural contexts shape infant sleep strategies. By combining direct quotes, significant statistical findings, and a clear explanation of cultural models, the study offers a comprehensive view. It challenges parents to consider both the science and the essence of infant care, advocating for a well-rounded approach that values both the wisdom of various cultures and the individual needs of each baby.


Van Schaik, S. D. M., Mavridis, C., Harkness, S., De Looze, M., Blom, M. J. M., & Super, C. M. (2020). Getting the Baby on a Schedule: Dutch and American Mothers’ Ethnotheories and the Establishment of Diurnal Rhythms in Early Infancy. NCBI.


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