The mother who slept with her back to the baby and other stories

The elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha, is a popular figure in Indian homes and public spaces. In prayer, Ganesha is invoked by any of his 108 names. He is believed to be endowed with wisdom, intellect, a great knowledge of the arts and sciences and, most significantly, the ability to remove obstacles or Vignaharta. The worship of Ganesha is considered an auspicious opening for any event of personal or social significance.

Annually, Ganesha’s birth is celebrated on the fourth day of the moon in the month of Bhadrapada, usually falling in August or September according to the Gregorian calendar. Although the event is observed by worshiping Hindus everywhere, the festivities in Mumbai and around are special. There are ten-days of celebrations every year during which an entry and installation is followed by daily prayer and the final immersion of the idol. Designated spaces in homes and public areas become temporarily sacred and people are invited to visit and seek blessings from the deity. It is a time for hectic social activity for believers as people visit each other’s homes, meet at temples and public spaces in large numbers. The immersion symbolises Ganesha’s return to his home in the Himalayas.

In a research study about child care practices that we conducted in 2010, one section related to sleeping arrangements. In justifying the need for physical proximity between a mother and baby, we encountered repeated references to Ganesha’s birth. This is the story.

One day, Shiva’s wife, Parvati needed a person to guard the door as she was by herself and wished to take a bath. As she was preparing to bathe, she shaped the discarded mound of turmeric paste, used to scrub her body, into human form and endowed it with life. Then, quite secure in the knowledge that her ‘son’ thus created would guard her privacy, she went about her bath. When Shiva returned, he found an unfamiliar child at the door, who refused to allow him entry into his own home. The child was none other than Shiva and Parvati’s son, Ganesha, but father and son did not recognise each other. Shiva flew into a rage at being prevented to enter his own home, raised his sword and struck a blow that severed the child’s head. Parvati rushed outside to see what was happened was so moved to anger and despair that she threatened to leave Shiva if he didn’t bring the child to life. Realising his mistake, Shiva ordered his guards to search the world to find a replacement for the child’s head. “Find a mother who was sleeping with her back towards the baby and bring me the head so I can bring the child back to life” he directed. The guards searched everywhere, unable to find any mother who had her back to her child, until at last, in a forest, they found an unknowing elephant mother with her back to the baby. Quickly severing the head of the baby elephant, they returned and placed it on Ganesha, and the elephant-headed god was born again.


Shared myths and personal stories

The question about ‘sleeping arrangements’ for children is an important matter for families everywhere. In the story of Ganesha’s birth, we find a deep and resounding message about the cultural importance of physical proximity of mother and child for reasons of safety and security. This is an instance of the use of a phantasm the personal reconstruction of a myth to make it available and applicable in particular instances. Whereas myths are collective stories that guide cultural reality, a phantasm makes these myths accessible for individual consumption. In most instances, we find it hard to grasp the influence of shared beliefs on our ways of thinking, but when mothers in our study referred to the legend in response to a question, evidence of the personalisation of a myth became evident.

The research study

A group of 46 female students at University in New Delhi were asked about their memories of sleeping arrangements during childhood. From the responses, it was found that all 46 remembered sleeping in the same bed with another person during their early years, among them were parents, grandparents, siblings, or another family member. Currently, as young adults, 23 of them were still sleeping in the same bed or room as their parents. A larger group of participants (154 including the students and their family members with almost equal numbers of men and women) were then asked to give their opinions about a hypothetical situation of a young mother who chose to shift her 5-month-old baby out of her bed to a cot in another room. The findings showed that, except for one student’s mother who argued that the woman must have had her reasons for separating the child, there was an unequivocal objection to the act. “How could she do something so ‘cruel’?” “When the child grows up she will also not care about her parents since she was rejected by them at this tender age?” “It is very inconvenient for the parent to run up and down to another room at night?” “How will there be love and attachment?” “A ‘real’ mother would never do such a cruel thing!” (Emphasis original). Ganesha’s story appeared repeatedly as a justification not only for sleeping close to the baby, but “facing the baby”, preferably with a hand placed on the child in order to protect the child and facilitate a sleep “free of fear”, some added. Some others mentioned that if the mother did get tired of sleeping on one side, she could flip vertically to get relief instead of turning away from the baby!

Physical proximity was considered essential for the mother and child and it was always possible for the child to sleep with another person, an aunt, an older sibling, a grandmother (female kin) if the mother was busy or had some reason to separate from the child, it was argued. Closeness was believed to be beneficial for several reasons: releasing the mother, companionship for an older member of the family and promoting relationships between the child and other family member, to name a few. Young adults who were currently sleeping with their parents, siblings or grandparents said that they chose to co-sleep because they “loved it”, “felt close” with the other person, or the older person “needed them nearby”. One participant said that every time her father went on tour, she would eagerly look forward to sharing her mother’s bed, another who slept in a separate room at night said that as soon as she came back home from college, she would snuggle up to her mother for an afternoon nap. Some participants mentioned space constraints in their home and weather conditions in Delhi as a reason for co-sleeping. When a family lived in a single room or a few rooms with many members, co-sleeping was the only option. Also, during summer months, costs of air-cooling and air-conditioning was an important reason why bedrooms were shared, the participants reported.

Cultural patterns in domestic arrangements for sleep: Reason or randomness

The reason/randomness debate about cultural practices is common, and different theorists argue about whether collective beliefs are arbitrary or adaptive. Either way, their significance is undeniable, as we can see from the above example of sleeping arrangements for young children. People actively justify actions and invest emotionally in their choices. Although economic geographical and other factors also play an important role in defining the possible arrangements for children’s care, attributions to social and psychological reasons is far more common. We tend to justify practices as social or psychological when in fact they may be financial.

Sleeping “with” someone

Economic, commercial, social and psychological aspects of family life coincided to promote the idea of where a child should sleep and there are dramatic differences among communities about what is best for children. We need to understand and appreciate these differences as we tend to believe that our own practices are best suited to a child’s welfare. This is an instance of ethnocentrism. Richard Shweder has done extensive research on the topic of “Who sleeps by whom”[1] through the examination of contrasts between Indian and American families in where and how a young child is supposed to sleep. In the study, Shweder and colleagues find that the care of children is a highly sensitive domain and sleeping patterns are symbolic actions of deep moral importance for the family.

Regarding the consequences of where a child sleeps, the findings of research appear to be guided as much by cultural ideology as concrete findings. Whereas some studies report sleep disturbance related to co-sleeping[2], supporters of co-sleeping find that such arrangements are beneficial for better sleep patterns, breast-feeding and feelings of security. On both sides of the argument, people who practice co-sleeping or separate sleeping, there are many issues that are important to consider. Within a community also, people may disagree on the best possible arrangements for the child to sleep. We are cautioned by one of our advisors that discomfort with co-sleeping can be experienced among Indian families where sleeping with an adult can be disagreeable for the parent or the child concerned.

Yet, as Shweder also concludes, people are quick to judge others’ practices as inappropriate and even harmful. We find an example of this inclination in the words of an expert[3] who concludes: “As a result of co-sleeping into later years, children today are less self-reliant. Many pre-teen children don’t yet know how to be alone at bedtime and thus they lack self-reliance. When kids don’t benefit from the experience of looking inside themselves as a resource, they focus on external mechanisms to manage stress and anxiety. They do not develop a healthy internal locus of control putting them at risk for low self-esteem. When parents band aid night-time anxiety symptoms by allowing co-sleeping, they often assume that kids will naturally grow out of it and many do not.”

In this blogpost, our aim is to examine differences and the reasons that people use for what they do rather than judging specific ways of raising babies. We believe that as long as there is no abuse or neglect, family members should have the right to decide when and how their children should sleep. Human infants are profoundly adaptive and can thrive under a variety of conditions as the history of human society reveals.

The language of love

The language of love is complex and elaborate and every language has expressions to suggest expressions of different forms of intimacy. For instance, in Japanese, falling out of love with someone is expressed by a phrase that can be translated into: the passing of an autumn breeze. The English expression of “sleeping with” or “spending the night with” someone is an unambiguous euphemism for an intimate, sexual relationship, even if it is fleeting. It is important to recognise that this reference is not shared with other languages, which may have their own expressions for oblique references to intimacy. In some parts of northern India, for instance, a common way of referring to sexual exchanges is “batlana” or “baat-cheet karna” literally meaning “chatting with”. It is the context in which the expression is used that implies a sexual liaison. The point we are making is that human language highly nuanced in the ways in which expressions are used to communicate or silence topics. Whenever a topic is considered rather sensitive, we tend to make use of oblique references with colourful metaphors and indirect references. Perhaps some of the discomfort with co-sleeping is related to the expression as well as the awakening of childhood sexuality explored under psychoanalysis.

Enter psychoanalysis

A significant event in the academic understanding family relationships was the advent of psychoanalytic theory. The meaning of adult-child relationships was forever transformed by Freud’s proposals about early childhood based on his study of adults. Infantile sexuality and the strivings for attention and affection from the opposite sex parent were argued as the substance of normal development as the child progressed through the evolving stages of sexuality on the path to maturity. Even young children were believed to have sexual drives, and as the popularity of psychoanalysis expanded, the psychologist entered the bedroom. Also, other consequences of social change resulting from transformations in family structure, income and urban development, resulted in the separation of sleeping arrangements between parents and children and among children. Gradually, having your own room as a personal space became an idea that was a commercial success, something that became a requirement in contemporary Western society. Who decides where your child sleeps is a matter of concern. We found an interesting article related to this issue .

Themes from our team

We along with our two children co-sleep in our room and sleeping arrangements have not been an issue. Why do we co-sleep? I guess it works for everyone in the family. The children’s grandmother lives with us and she enjoys the children’s company and her room is also their play room. As far as sleeping goes, bed-time is a time for intimacy between us parents and children. After a busy day, being together, chatting and connecting with each other as a family is important for us. The kids like to read in bed and gradually fall asleep. The available space on the bed did become an issue a while back but that was addressed promptly. Our older daughter (now 5) has shifted into her own bed in our room. The little one bonds well with the grandmother and prefers to slip into her bed after we are done with reading. This is a arrangement that has worked for everyone in the family – Pooja

SleepingIt is hilarious, I am now sleeping in all 26 alphabetic formations on the bed. My three year-old ousts me from his ‘space’ insisting “xxxx (his own name) pillow”, “xxxx lie down”, and any attempts I make to come closer to my own pillow (and him of course) are met with an emphatic “NO”! He sometimes chooses to sleep horizontally on our two pillows leaving us little headspace on either side of the bed. We (rather I) have been thinking of getting a separate bed, a single bed, in the same room, maybe adjacent to ours, on which one of us could sleep when turned out. He could also experiment with “owning” a bed of his own…and hopefully come to love the idea enough to sleep independently soon, more with the objective of creating a space to call his own and less for our independence/freedom. I would miss the cuddly times with the baby, I guess. – Punya

Both our sons are adults now and when they were young, questions about sleeping with us never really occurred to us, as a couple or as a family. When they were born, we had space constraints as we were living in a one room apartment. When our economic status improved slightly, we got a bigger house, but we had only one air-cooler (and then an air-conditioner) for the summer months in Delhi.  The movement was not linked with any feelings of sacrifice or guilt.

I feel there are no rights/wrongs with cultural beliefs and practices. What is believed to be right is the right thing! I believe that the effect of a practice is primarily on account of the meaning we attach to it and not the practice. Even when we have bigger spaces (as in many rural homes), children happily sleep with parents, grandparents, uncles or aunts. Almost every kid has a favourite person to sleep with. I do believe the separation of children from parents is an urban concern in recent times. In my experience as a parent and a professional, it is conviction versus doubt which problematises or normalises a practice. – Indu

In addition to love and safety I also feel that having someone to sleep with is believed to be a fortunate circumstance, and sleeping alone a misfortune. I feel that in Indian homes, even when children have a separate room, they mostly sleep with their parents. My niece is 8 years old and has her own room, but her favourite sleeping position is with her leg thrown over her mother.

For me, the best time of day is when I lay down with my daughter in bed. I become her teddy bear and she becomes mine, and we play imaginary games and chat with each other as she falls off to sleep for a little while. When she was born we thought about buying a cot (because they look so good in stores), but then decided not to. When we moved to Indonesia we were provided with one but we never used it. In our bed, our daughter takes up most of the space as we (my husband and I) become sleep on either side of her so that she doesn’t fall off the bed.

When I became a mother, I too was told by my mother to face the child while sleeping, like in the Ganesha story. My mother and others also told me to always sleep facing your child, and I too changed directions when I was tired of sleeping on one side so as not to face away from her.

As a child, I too slept with my mother, in fact, even now, when I visit her, I like to sleep with her along with my own daughter. When my husband is out of town, my mother-in-law comes to sleep with me and my daughter so that we “are not alone”. Personally, I believe that people who chose not to sleep with their child are missing out on 8 hours of togetherness with their child every day! I also feel that the access and popularity of Western practices is confusing a lot of young parents in today’s times. – Reshu.

Co-sleeping emerges as an affectionate practice among Indian families. Yet it is essential for adults to be watchful of sleeping arrangements because the possibilities of abuse or discomfort of the children or adults involved. Traditional families used to have several safeguards about sleeping arrangements to ensure the safety of children.

Picture of Ganesha, credit: Archeet Nayar




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