By: Armin Brott
As hard as it may be to imagine, there exists a rather basic parenting issue that regularly generates even more controversy than circumcision or the disposable-versus-cloth diapers-debate: whether or not to have your child sleep in the same bed as you and your partner.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on where you stand on the issue), there's absolutely no consensus on which views is the “right” one. And just to make sure that there's no real way to decide this issue once and for all, there's very little serious scientific data supporting either position.
Our older daughter slept in a bassinet in our room for a month or so until we moved her into her own room, and the middle one slept in bed with us for six months before being asked to leave. Personally, I kind of liked being able to snuggle up with a warm, smooth baby, but after being kicked in the head, stomach, back, face, and chest every night for six months I was glad to go back to an adults-only sleeping arrangement. My youngest also started off in our bed but moved to her own room after only 6 weeks or so.
Here are some of the most common issues that come up in discussions of the family bed:
- Independence. Proponents of co-sleeping or the family bed point to the fact those in most countries (comprising about 80 percent of the world's population), parents and children sleep in the same bed. They claim that kids are being forced to be independent too early and that human evolution simply can't keep pace with the new demands our culture is placing on its children. They maintain that before a child can become independent she must feel that the world is a safe place and that her needs will be met. Kids who sleep in a family bed turn out to be more independent, more confident, and more self-assured than those who don't. Critics, however, say that what works in other countries doesn't always work here. In America, early independence is critical, and babies should therefore quickly learn to be away from their parents, especially if both work and the children have to be in day care.
- Sleep: the baby's. Despite what you might think, co-sleeping children tend to sleep more lightly than children who sleep alone (blankets rustling and parents turning over in bed wake them up). But light sleeping isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there seems to be a correlation between lighter sleep and a lower incidence of SIDS.
- Sleep: yours. It's perfectly normal for even the soundest-sleeping kids to wake up every three or four hours for a quick look around the room. The vast majority (about 70 percent) soothe themselves back to sleep after a minute or two. But about 30 percent will spot something they just have to play with (you or your partner, for example), and they're up for hours.
- Safety. Many parents are afraid that they'll accidentally roll over their sleeping child if the whole family is sharing the same bed. While this is a perfectly legitimate concern, most adults—even while asleep—have a highly developed sense of where they are. It's probably been quite a while since you fell out of bed in the middle of the night.
- Sexual spontaneity. No kidding. But there are plenty of other places to make love besides your bed.
- Breastfeeding. There's no question that it's a lot easier for a nursing mother to reach across her bed for the baby than to get up and stagger down the hall. Some research indicates that this may encourage mothers to breastfeed longer. Problems arise, however, when fathers feel (and they often do) displaced by the nursing baby and decide that the only place to get a good night's sleep is on the couch.
Things to Consider About Sharing Your Bed with Your Child:
- Keep politics out of your decision-making. Sleep with your child because you and your partner want to, not because you feel you have to.
- Don't be embarrassed. You're not being soft, negligent, or overindulgent— it's a choice made by millions of fine parents.
- Make sure your bed is large enough to accommodate everyone. (But no waterbeds—baby could roll between you and the mattress.) Put the bed against the wall and have the baby sleep on the wall side, or get a guard rail if she's going to sleep on the outside edge. And remember, overly soft mattresses¸ comforters, and pillows may pose a risk of suffocation.
- Make sure everyone's toenails are trimmed.
- Rethink your decision right now if you're obese, you drink or take any medication that might make you hard to wake up, or if you're generally such a sound sleeper that you're worried you might roll on top of your baby without noticing.
- Think before you start. Once your baby has been sleeping in your bed for six to eight months, it's going to be awfully hard to get her out if you change your mind.
Things to Consider About Not Sharing Your Bed with Your Child:
- Don't feel guilty. You're not a bad or selfish parent for not doing it.
- There is absolutely no evidence that sleeping with your child will speed up the bonding/attachment process.
- It's okay to make an occasional exception, such as when a child is ill or has had a frightening experience. If you're making your decision because of safety issues, you may be able to compromise by setting up the baby's crib in your bedroom or by getting a “sidecar”—basically a three-sided crib that attaches to the side of your bed.
A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the author of Father for Life, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be; The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, and The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts "Positive Parenting", a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at www.mrdad.com.