It’s easy to assume that something as universal as sleep is the same around the world, but that’s far from true. Across the globe, populations have a rich assortment of cultural norms and traditions associated with the way they sleep. As this diverse list of customs proves, sleep isn’t just biological—it’s cultural too.
1. Cold Is Healthy
If you travel to Scandinavia, don’t be alarmed to see babies left outside of cafés and shops to nap in their strollers while their parents are inside. Swaddled in a wealth of warm layers, these babies sleep peacefully unattended on sidewalks. Even during the winter months, this practice is common and well respected from Denmark to Norway, and parents believe that as long as a baby has the right clothing, exposure to cold air is beneficial to their health. In fact, most of us sleep better in cooler temperatures. The ideal room temperature for sleeping is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, or as low as 60.5 degrees if you prefer to be under extra covers.
2. Sleep Is a Communal Experience
From Afghanistan to Japan to Mexico, families sleeping in the same room or bed is a common practice. In the Western world, we place an emphasis on independence almost immediately after a child is born, generally expecting them to occupy their own room or share with a sibling once they’re older.
However, several studies and anthropological reports haven’t found anything wrong with the more communal experience that other nations embrace. In fact, in Afghanistan, the bedroom often isn’t an official space. Having a dedicated bedroom isn’t a strict concern, and families instead put bedding away each morning to allow the room to be used for other purposes during the day.
3. Sleep Isn’t Always Continuous
Most of us think that a successful night’s sleep means a steady seven to eight hours of continuous, disruption-free rest, but in a small mountainous region of Indonesia, evening interruptions are a welcomed part of the sleep process. As reported in The New York Times, the Toraja, an indigenous group, “have ‘punctuated’ sleep. They wake often as others turn and get up in the night, or when a child calls out or another adult can’t sleep and starts to chat.”
Contrary to what we’d assume, that practice isn’t so different from that of early Westerners. The article’s author, T.M. Luhrmann, notes research confirming that “this obsession with eight hours of continuous sleep is largely a creation of the electrified age. Back when night fell for, on average, half of each 24 hours, people slept in phases.”
4. Napping Isn’t Just for Kids
Most of us have heard of the afternoon siesta before, but did you know the practice of taking a midday nap is actually quite widespread? According to Sleep.org, the ritual isn’t unique to Spanish-speaking nations alone. People in Greece, Nigeria, and other traditionally warm countries in Europe also indulge in dedicated midday rest, and there are plenty of reasons the practice might have health benefits.
Interestingly, while the siesta is a revered ritual allowing for family time and a large meal during the hottest time of the day, not all napping cultures treat it that way. In Japan, napping has actually replaced sufficient sleep in the last few decades. With cultural pressures extolling work over sleep, the Japanese turn to inemuri, or naps taken anywhere, anytime—usually in public—to offset the deficit.
5. The Sun Is the Original Alarm Clock
The Economist recently reported on a study comparing post-Industrial Revolution sleep habits with those of hunter gatherers, concluding that duration of sleep hasn’t changed much post Industrial Revolution, but what dictates our sleep has.
Thanks to the cooperation of three groups still practicing a pre-agricultural way of life, the Hadza, Ju/’hoansi San, and Tsimané, of Tanzania, the Kalahari Desert, and Bolivia, respectively, researchers were able to gather that the pre-agricultural groups let air temperature and seasons govern when and how long they sleep.
Though living in different geographic regions, members in each group rise slightly before the sun does and go to sleep once the temperature drops a few hours after sunset—and sleep longer during the winter months. These indigenous people also logged lower average hours of sleep than their industrialized counterparts but didn’t have a need for naps during the day.
As it turns out, there’s really no such thing as “normal” or “unusual” sleep. Humans are a diverse species, and our myriad sleep traditions and practices aptly illustrate our social and cultural differences.
About The Author
As a husband and former college athlete, Gabriel Smith is well aware of what it means to be properly rested and ready to contribute to a team. As a partnered Wellness and Sleep Expert, he is driven by what people can get done when they manage their individual resources, including proper rest. He regularly shares sleep advice and recommendations with readers and followers on topics around sleep, health, wellness, physical fitness, and productivity.
Gabriel lives in Salt Lake City as a newlywed with his wife, Danielle, who is a successful HR practitioner in Silicon Slopes. The key to Gabriel’s best night’s sleep? Watching his favorite basketball team win in the evening and knowing his wife, family, and friends are nearby for travel, quality time, and brunch in the morning.