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Durham University

Department of Anthropology


Publication details for Prof Helen L. Ball

Ball, H, Tomori, C & McKenna, J (2019). Toward an integrated anthropology of infant sleep. American Anthropologist 121(3): 595-612.

Author(s) from Durham


This paper provides a novel synthesis of anthropological research on infant sleep focusing on work in biological and sociocultural anthropology in the past decade. First, we briefly review early biological anthropological research into infant sleep between 1987-2007, which provided the foundational evidence base for the core argument that proximate parent-infant sleep combined with lactation represents a complex set of adaptations that constitute the human evolutionary norm. This work challenged the traditional western pediatric infant sleep research paradigm, which positioned formula- or bottle-fed, solitary sleeping infants as the basis for research and universal models about human infant sleep. Next, we address how recent research across the subfields has built on these foundations and extended anthropological insights into new aspects of infant sleep. Biological anthropologists, who continue to lead this area of research, have advanced research into the hormonal and behavioural ecology of parent-infant sleep and trade-offs in night-time care, and parent-infant conflict. Moreover, they have made significant progress in translating of anthropological research into policy and practice in clinical and health delivery settings. Anthropology has transformed health guidance for safe infant sleep in the UK, and has been instrumental in raising awareness about the needs of women and babies during the early postpartum period (called “the 4th trimester”) in the US. Until recently, sociocultural anthropology has primarily addressed infant sleep as part of broader endeavors, without an explicit focus on infant sleep. We highlight key ethnographic works that shed light on the cultural normalcy and inter-embodied experience of shared maternal-infant sleep with breastfeeding that help to de-center western discourses of infant sleep. We also review recent research that explores the western, capitalist cultural origins and power dynamics entailed in the global rise of biomedicalization of infant sleep that emphasizes physical separation and regimentation of infant bodies. We conclude by discussing future research agendas to forward an integrated anthropology of human infant sleep that considers infant sleep in its full biological and sociocultural context. Current biomedical models of infant sleep increasingly recognize the importance of breastfeeding and encourage greater proximity than in the past, but also continue to replicate many western cultural assumptions from earlier decades. Integrated anthropological approaches to infant sleep not only present a path forward for novel cross-subfield anthropological research but could help guide more effective and equitable approaches to maternal-infant health.