Sleep & Culture – How People Sleep Across The World

Sleep & Culture – How People Sleep Across The World

Sleep, or at least a daily period of rest, has likely been part of life since the beginning of evolutionary time.

In humans, sleep patterns have changed over the centuries, even if our need for sleep has not. At various periods throughout history, people have gone to great lengths to make sleep more comfortable and safer, or to incorporate sleep into their lives to a greater or lesser extent.

Many of our ideas about sleep have varied from culture to culture as well as in response to the growth of scientific understanding.

Sleep is the great leveller. People everywhere spend about a third of their lives asleep, whether they lay their heads down in a chic Melbourne high-rise or the depths of the Amazon. In the midst of the current global health crisis, everybody, everywhere has a little more time for catching up on sleep than usual right now. 

Yet customs surrounding sleep differ around the world, depending on environmental factors, culture and tradition, and the availability of artificial light.

For one thing, the timing and duration of sleep is strikingly different across the globe. Take the siesta, or early afternoon nap, common throughout the Mediterranean.

The siesta is a cultural institution in Spain, to the extent that shops and businesses (excluding major chains) typically close for a few hours during the day. Can you imagine getting peckish around three only to wander aimlessly through a sea of shuttered doors?

Today, most adult Spaniards have abandoned the midday nap during the work week, but businesses remain shuttered from two to four. The siesta likely came about as a result of soaring daytime temperatures and traditionally heavy midday meals.

Naps are a regular part of life in many Spanish-speaking countries, as well as Italy, China, India, Greece, Bangladesh, and North Africa. In China, an hour-long midday rest is a constitutional right!

In Japan, where sleep-deprivation is common, "nap salons" cater to weary office workers looking for some daytime shut-eye.

Whether or not a person sleeps in the company of their family is another source of contrast. The overwhelming majority of families across the world practice co-sleeping, where mothers (or both parents) and babies share a room until the children are weaned, or in some cultures, long afterwards.

Bed-sharing, a specific type of co-sleeping where parents and children – you guessed it – share a bed, is routinely practiced outside North America, Europe, and Australia. Interestingly, the prevalence of co-sleeping and bed-sharing seems to correlate much more strongly with culture than with socio-economic status.

Though data is limited, a few studies have shown that Japan, Singapore, and the United States are the most sleep deprived countries.

In fact, one Boston College study showed that anywhere between 73% and 80% of American students are not getting the sleep they need. Given what we know about the effect of sleep deprivation on development, that’s a disturbing statistic.

Melbourne residents, rejoice – one study found that Melbournites are among the most well-rested people in the world. Melbourne also happens to be the home of Regal Sleep Solutions. Just saying. 

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