Should we let our child sleep in our bed?
Not long ago most child-care experts would have answered with an emphatic “No!” and maybe even “Under no circumstances.” Now the answer is more often “Do what feels right for your family.”
There are a growing number of experts who are telling mothers that they can do what they feel is right for their children without fear of “ruining” them! This includes co-sleeping, also called shared sleep or the family bed.
Noted child-care expert T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., reconsidered his ideas about co-sleeping after hearing from parents on the issue. In a June 1979 article in Redbook he said,
“When I advised against bringing children into their parents’ bed in an earlier article, I received many letters from parents who felt that sleeping alone is a custom our society unreasonably demands of its small children.
I was impressed and have learned a great deal from the letters that expressed this point of view. I hadn’t realized how many parents did NOT believe in helping a child learn to sleep alone at night. Their letters and their arguments made me reevaluate my rather rigid ideas on handling sleep problems in our culture.”
If you share your bed with your children you are not alone. Surveys show that 25 to 30 percent of American parents routinely let their children sleep with them, either for part or all of the night.
The United States is one of the few countries that has a cultural bias against parents sharing a bed with their children. It was a common tradition in the U.S. until the twentieth century when child-care experts began warning parents that they must teach their children to sleep alone or create psychological scars.
It continues to be a common tradition in many other cultures and not just because of limited space. It is common in Japan, for example, where they emphasize the nurturing aspects of family life. Parents don’t sleep alone, most people do not like sleeping alone, why would a baby?
Tine Thevenin, in her book, “Mothering and Fathering: The Gender Differences in Child Rearing” discusses the basic gender traits that have lead to the general acceptance of the male perspective as the “correct” way and left many mothers feeling that they must ignore their instincts (she is describing generic male/female archetypes).
She notes that the experts opposed to co-sleeping usually describe the practice as “unhealthy.” However, this is based on a characteristically male concept of health.
For men independence feels healthy but for women, intimacy and connectedness with their young children feels healthy.
She also notes that “In many cultures, particularly societies where child-rearing expertise is considered a woman’s specialty, it would be considered unhealthy for babies to sleep without their mothers.”
Many researchers contend that co-sleeping will lead to “problems.” However, closer examination reveals that they have defined “problems” as anything that deviates from their belief that children should be alone in their own beds at night (e.g. these children are more likely to resist sleeping alone, want someone with them when they go to sleep, and wake up more frequently seeking companionship).
The issue of independence is usually linked with co-sleeping. Our society has a reverence for independence and many people feel that the earlier it is achieved the better. However, the recommendation that children sleep alone because “it promotes independence” is based on cultural preferences, not on scientific evidence.
Dr. James McKenna, Ph.D. (professor of anthropology and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of California’s Irvine School of Medicine) states that there is no scientific backing to the ideas that co-sleeping causes prolonged infant dependency or psychological damage to the baby. In fact, he notes that there have been no scientific studies on the pros or cons of solitary sleeping.
Many parents feel that it actually promotes independence by giving the child strong feelings of security. William Sears, M.D., is a pediatrician, co-sleeping father of 8, and an advocate of attachment parenting (and does not hesitate to state his belief that full-time mothering is better for babies).
In his book “Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep” he states that co-sleeping does not encourage dependency. “Children reach the stage of independence when they are ready. It is the parents job to provide a secure environment which allows a child’s independence to develop naturally.”
Pediatricians indicate that sleep issues are the biggest problem brought to their attention by parents, yet pediatricians get little, if any, training in this area. (They are trained in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses – not in parenting styles.) Many times their advice to parents is to let the baby “cry it out.” Yet most mothers do not feel right about this advice and it usually does not work because the mother is unable to follow through with it.
A mother’s body chemistry changes in response to her child’s cries. She experiences a surge of hormones and an increase in blood flow to her breasts which triggers the urge to pick up the baby and nurse. The baby’s cry is his protective mechanism to assure that his needs are met.
The late Dr. Lee Salk said, “There is no harm in a child crying; the harm is done if his cries are not answered.” Dr. Sears states that a mother is not designed to let her own baby cry and the baby is not designed to be left alone crying.
He believes that not responding to a baby’s cries undermines the infant’s trust and instead of teaching the baby to sleep, it teaches him that his cries have no communicative value. He imparts some valuable advice on this subject:
“When it comes to mother-infant attachment your instincts should be followed above the advice of anyone else. The other person has no biological attachment to your infant.”
Other areas of concern often voiced by those opposed to co-sleeping include possible overlaying, marital conflict, and the inevitable “you’ll never get them to leave.”
Mothers are so physically and mentally aware of their baby that this is highly unlikely unless alcohol or drugs are involved. In addition, a baby is not completely helpless. If a parent starts to roll onto a baby, she will most likely wake up and cry.
Fathers may not be as aware and could knock the baby with a stray arm. Consider keeping the baby on the other side of mom and install a guard rail or move the bed flush against the wall.
Keep pillows and blankets away from the baby’s face. Do not allow a baby to sleep on a couch, bean bag, or water bed. Never sleep with the baby when under the influence of alcohol or tranquilizing medication.
Marriage and Sex
Most parents throughout the world sleep with their infants with no such problems. A Swedish study looked at this issue and found that the parents’ marital relations were not harmed by having a child sleep with them and that it did not cause a rise in the divorce rate.
If both parents agree on it, sharing sleep usually does not contribute to marital conflict (however, it won’t work if you don’t want the child there). Many parents report that co-sleeping has lead to more creativity in their sex lives. They point out that there are many other rooms in the house. They may also move a sleeping child to the floor or another room temporarily.
Will They Ever Leave?
You can gradually wean your child from your bed.
Weaning may be easier before the age of 9 to 12 months due to the intense separation anxiety which can set in at that time. It may also be easier around the end of the second year when the separation anxiety tends to ease up.
Most children voluntarily leave around the second or third year but many parents report their older children still “visit” in times of need.
As children get older, they don’t need the security of their parents’ presence as much. Tine Thevenin, in her earlier book “The Family Bed: An Age Old Concept in Child Rearing” noted, “Parents’ experiences indicate that the healthy child will wean himself in time from the parental bed. Children should be given the credit that, provided the home environment is healthy, they will mature. As each need is fulfilled at each stage, they will move on and become more mature.”
The issue should be how the child leaves not when. Often times parents begin by putting the child on a mattress on the floor next to their bed and gradually move him to his own room or to a sibling’s bedroom. Studies have shown that children under three sleep better sharing a bedroom rather than alone in their own rooms. Parents also report that siblings who sleep together quarrel less.
Complaints of Co-Sleeping Parents
The most common negative aspects reported by co-sleeping parents are restless, squirming, kicking babies or children and the occasional spitting up or wet bed.
However, they note that these inconveniences are far outweighed by the benefits. You can mitigate these problems by keeping a towel handy under your pillow for clean ups and putting a waterproof mattress pad on your mattress. If you can’t get a king size bed you can still increase your sleeping space by making an “add on” from chairs and a board, a bench, or other furniture and covering with a blanket or mattress pad. If you have the room you can place a twin bed at the foot of your bed.
Benefits of co-sleeping with baby
There are numerous benefits to co-sleeping. A little background in the science of sleep will help to make these more apparent.
There are two main stages of sleep: light/active/REM (rapid eye movement) and deep/quiet/non-REM. Dreaming occurs during REM sleep. During an average eight hours of sleep adults spend six hours in quiet sleep and two hours in REM.
Research has shown that REM sleep may be necessary for the brain to mature. The younger the human the greater the percentage of REM sleep they engage in.
The early fetus has almost 100 percent REM sleep, the infant has 50 percent, adolescents and adults have 20 percent and the elderly have 15 percent.
Babies also have shorter sleep cycles. The adult sleep cycle is about 90 minutes (REM sleep four times per night). The infant’s cycle is 50 to 60 minutes. Waking occurs most easily when transitioning from quiet sleep to REM sleep so there are more times when the infant might awaken.
Babies also enter sleep differently than adults. Adults go quickly into quiet sleep without going through REM sleep. Infants first go into REM sleep for about 20 minutes and then through a transitional phase to quiet sleep. They are easily awakened during this time. As they mature they become able to go directly into quiet sleep. The age at which this occurs varies. In some babies it is as early as three months but is probably around eight months on average.
Sleep cycles play an important role in the benefits of co-sleeping.
Babies Sleep Better
Sleeping with a familiar person smooths the transition from one sleep state to another and lessens a baby’s anxiety. When he partially awakens he can be helped to resettle before he fully awakens.
For older children an attachment object such as a “blankie” serves this purpose. However, Dr. Sears contends that a baby needs a person. Babies do not yet have object permanence. If they are awakened and their mother is not there they do not comprehend that she is just in another room.
Mothers Sleep Better
Most parents do sleep better with their baby (once they have a chance to get used to it) but this is especially so for the mother. She does not lie awake wondering if her baby is okay.
Physical closeness causes a mother and baby to share sleep cycles. A baby usually wakes during light sleep and the mother is then likely to be in light sleep as well. She can settle the baby without her sleep cycles being seriously disturbed. Awakening from deep sleep is what leads to exhaustion. Because the mother is awakened less often from deep sleep she is less likely to feel groggy or sleep-deprived.
Breastfeeding is Easier
Nursing occurs without the baby or the mother becoming fully awake rather than the mother being awakened by a crying baby and going to her when they are both fully awake.
Prolactin Levels Increase
Prolactin is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. Prolactin levels increase with sleep, nursing and touching. It is often referred to as the “mothering” hormone since it seems to promote “mothering” behavior. It also causes the mother to feel more rested.
Acceptance and tolerance levels seem to increase with co-sleeping and nursing. Dr. Sears wonders if this may be due to prolactin. Some researchers suggest that prolactin is responsible for the similarity of dream and sleep cycles and brain wave patterns between mothers and their nursing babies.
Co-Sleeping Increases Touching
Touching has been shown to be important and beneficial in how the baby develops physically, emotionally and intellectually.
Children Sleep Better
Co-sleeping gives the child a feeling of security and of being loved and protected. There is no need to be afraid and the body heat of another person is very comforting.
In Dr. Sears reviews he found that co-sleeping children awakened less often and have fewer nightmares and nighttime disturbances. These children view sleep as a pleasant time of closeness. Children who sleep alone (especially if they don’t want to) often consider it a fearful time of separation.
Co-sleeping may create a closer bond between the parents and child. Once they get used to it many fathers report that they feel closer to their babies. This also enables fathers to spend more time with their children, after all human beings spend a third of their life asleep.
Long Term Effects
Dr. Sears believes that co-sleeping teaches a child to be comfortable being in touch with a person and does not substitute things for people (bottle, teddy bear, blankie, etc.).
Tine Thevenin says it has been observed that children that have been breastfed and slept with their parents are more demonstrative in showing affection and seem better equipped to deal competently with social processes. “Parents have verified that such a child also seems to have a higher degree of empathy for other members in the family.”
May Lessen the Chances of SIDS
The incidence of SIDS is lowest in cultures that traditionally share sleep. Researchers are just beginning to investigate the relationship between co-sleeping and SIDS. They believe that sensory exchanges in co-sleeping make it difficult for SIDS to occur.
Co-sleeping gives increased protection through parental monitoring and interventions (reblanketing, repositioning, patting, etc.). Increased sensory stimuli make it more likely that the baby will arouse and the mother acts as a respiratory pacemaker reminding the baby to breathe.
The baby stays in lighter stages of sleep (more REM sleep) and thus gets more blood oxygen, arousal responses, and sensitivity to breathing stimuli.
Other possible effects include the fact that the baby usually sleeps in better positions (back or side vs. stomach). Body heat is shared during sleep and helps to regulate breathing. More nursing and touching may result in enhanced cardiorespiratory development. More sucking improves the amount of oxygen in the blood of premature infants.
Touching acts as a respiratory stimulant. Prolactin may increase the mother’s awareness of the baby. Shared sleep leads to more nursing which leads to more immunological protection.
Dr. McKenna notes that babies are not meant by nature to sleep in quiet non-stimulatory environments. They are too neurologically immature. He maintains that Western babies are chronically under stimulated because of our independent, individualistic ideals.
Be Open to Trying Various Sleep Arrangements
Co-sleeping is not limited to having your child in your bed. It may mean having baby in a “side car” arrangement with his open crib next to your bed.
For an older child it could mean a mat on the floor next to your bed (watch out for drafts). For some families it means wall-to-wall mattresses on the floor. It can also mean having your child in your room or bed for only part of the night.
Some parents enjoy their evening alone until their baby’s first night waking when they move him into their bed. Others let him fall asleep in their bed and then move him to his own room.
Some older children start out in their own beds and join their parents later in the night if they feel the need. And some parents stay in their child’s bed until the child falls asleep.
Dr. Sears notes, “Sharing sleep also requires that you trust your intuition about the parenting of your individual child rather than unquestioningly accepting the norms of society.” Also consider that this is not a now and forever decision. You can always try other approaches if your first decision does not work for your family.
“I just don’t want my child in my bed”
It is not selfish to consider your own feelings. If you feel you need this time to nurture your marriage and recharge your own batteries then take it so you can be a more effective parent by day.
You may also consider bringing your child into bed with you in the morning for some cuddling. Dr. Jeffrey W. Hull, M.D. (pediatrician) offers a video, Sleep Tight, with his “No Tears” approach to getting your infant or toddler to sleep through the night in his own bed. The method involves sitting with the child until she falls asleep and gradually moving your chair each night until you are out the door (this method can also be useful in weaning your child from your own bed).
Dr. Sears notes, “Wherever you all sleep best and whatever leaves all of you feeling right is the best sleeping arrangement for your family.”