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Co-Sleeping: What Every Parent Should Know About It

written by / June 24, 2020
Co-Sleeping

Much has been written about sleeping in one bed with your children, so-called co-sleeping, and there are all sorts of opinions between the pros and cons. There’s some logic to both sides, but no definite rules. Like many other aspects of parenting, it’s best to trust your own feelings and your baby’s needs.

In the past, the tips for how to discipline and raise a generation were different from today. For good or ill, a more liberal approach to child-rearing has been achieved. But sharing a bed with your children at night has its advantages and disadvantages, which must be considered before making a decision. After all, nowadays, more and more rules are set by the children, not the parents.

What Is Co-Sleeping?

It includes either sharing a bed or at least a room—most commonly, a combination of the two—during an infant’s earliest months. Almost 75% of parents sleep with their babies in their early days, and half still share their bedrooms with them three months after birth. By the time children are six months old, one in four babies still sleeps in the parents’ bed or room.

The practice of sleeping together is controversial, both medically and culturally. For example, the American Pediatric Association (APA) recommends sleeping in the same room instead of sleeping in the same bed.

For example, bed sharing with a newborn or infant under the age of two years is very popular. Small children usually want to sleep with their parents—as such, it’s challenging to get children this age to sleep alone. Their verbal communication is minimal, and it takes some effort to understand why they won’t stay in their beds. Furthermore, these children tend to feel more attached to their parents. For this reason, many parents agree to let them stay in their bed.

Nevertheless, other people recommend that instead of co-sleeping, a crib in the baby’s bedroom is a better place to sleep from the fourth or fifth month of birth and on. However, in cultures where sharing the bed with the child is extremely common, some children sleep with their parents until they’re six or seven years old. Japan, for example, is one of these countries. 

And although co-sleeping around the world is widespread, this practice is not particularly tolerated or common in Western culture, where babies are traditionally put in cribs in a separate room early on. When it comes to older children, this also makes it easier for them to understand that they need to sleep in their bed.

Reasons Children Like Sharing a Bed with Mom or Dad

The reasons children want to sleep in a shared bed with their parents may vary depending on the age and personality of the child. This is also greatly influenced by the dynamics of the family and the relationship between the parent and child. However, sleep is very important for children—as it is for their parents—thus, good quality rest is necessary for everyone to stay healthy. Let’s look at some common reasons why children want to sleep with their parents:

Fear of the Dark

Fear of the dark is one of the most common reasons for parent and infant bed sharing. Generally, children who fear the dark express their fear. But this allows you to find a solution to the problem early. If the cause is a deep-rooted fear, it may be helpful to seek professional help.

Fear of Being Alone

It’s usual for children to be scared of something. And the fear of being left alone is one of the most common reasons for co-sleeping. You, as a parent, should help your children cope with their fears.

Attachment to Parents

Everyone knows that children want to spend a lot of time with their parents and share all their days and nights because of their unique connection. We have to mention that with children, certain sleep disorders are common: teeth grinding, night terrors, restless legs syndrome, sleepwalking, and sleep talking. In these cases, both parents and children may be calmer if they sleep together. The same goes for children who fall on the autistic spectrum.

Co-Sleeping: Pros and Cons

Sleeping in a single bed with your baby usually involves several controversial topics: breastfeeding, closeness, more restful sleep, and self-confidence. Each of them has its pros and cons.

Pros

Cons

Breastfeeding

  • In the beginning, the baby needs constant physical contact with the mother. Co-sleeping with your baby allows immediate access to their food at night. Moreover, the baby manages to feed and calm down almost without waking up—and without the mother having to wake up completely.
  • Sleeping with the baby close to the mother and providing direct access to breastmilk prolongs the time for breastfeeding at night, which delays the time when the baby will sleep peacefully.

Child Safety

  • A mother has sharp instincts. Thanks to this, even in her sleep, she protects her baby, checks that they’re breathing normally, and is in constant vigilance for their needs when she is near.
  • There is a danger of a baby being crushed or suffocated when sharing the bed. Also, in the case of bed sharing, SIDS becomes more of a concern.

Peaceful Sleep for Both Parents and Children

  • When the child is in their parents’ bed, the parents won’t have to wake up several times a night to comfort them if they cry. This is one of the most significant co-sleeping benefits.
  • When sharing a bed with her baby, a mother is always alert and unable to sleep deeply, meaning she can’t rest well at night. Also, the child may impede the parents’ intimate life.

The Child’s Self-Confidence

  • Sleeping in a parent’s bed makes the child more confident and relaxed. It’s also a good way to manage night fears, which over time can turn the child into an insecure adult.
  • When parents are sleeping with their babies, this can have negative consequences for child development, like creating a strong level of dependence. The longer the child sleeps with his or her parents, the more difficult it is to separate. Moving to a single bed and room at a later age can cause the child to feel rejected or abandoned. It’s recommended that the child be transferred to a different place at 6–18 months of age.

How Dangerous Is Co-Sleeping?

Does sleeping in a parent’s bed raise the risk of sudden death (also known as crib death or cot death) in newborns? How can you convince a toddler to sleep in their own bed after sharing one bed? In the long run, will this have adverse effects on the child’s emotional development? These are parents’ most common concerns.

However, there’s very little scientific evidence and research on the benefits or harms of sleeping in the same bed as a young child. The reasons for this are mostly ethical—after all, no one can demand that one group of mothers sleep with their babies and another not. In fact, the available co-sleeping research studies on the subject usually involve a very limited number of participants, which makes it difficult to come to realistic and scientifically sound conclusions.

In 2017, a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders demonstrated that sleeping in the same bed can make a child more susceptible to anxiety and depression in the future. However, even the study itself suggests that every child will be treated differently by his or her family members. In line with this, it cannot be unequivocally stated that sharing a bed will have a significant effect on their further development.

A Penn State study found that mothers who began bed sharing with their infant and continued after the age of six months were more sleep deprived. Overall, they were less satisfied with their marriage, as well as with their parents and their partner. The authors showed that these mothers were less gentle with their babies at bedtime, and somewhat irritable. It’s also clear that this practice does not disturb the fathers’ sleep, nor does it reduce their involvement in the marriage and child-rearing activities.

How to Safely Co-Sleep with Children

Some parents find that sleeping together makes sleeping while caring for a baby more bearable, while others find the constant care and interruption of sleep difficult. Additionally, experts raise concerns about sleeping with a child because of the increased risk of sudden unexpected death in infancy. The latter includes SIDS and fatal sleeping accidents.

Practicing safe bed sharing with a newborn is essential. The risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) increases for babies that sleep in the same bed with their parents—this is especially true when the baby is younger than three months old.  

However, the risk of SIDS is higher in the following situations:

  • One or both parents are smokers
  • One or both parents use drugs, alcohol, or sedative medication that can cause heavy sleep
  • The baby is younger than three months old
  • The baby was born prematurely, or they were smaller than average when born

However, some safety precautions can be taken if you decide to co-sleep with your baby. Following safe bed sharing guidelines can help parents to reduce the risk of SIDS:

  • The baby should be put to sleep on their back and never on the tummy or side.
  • Use a safe baby or infant swaddle instead of bedding to avoid covering the head during sleep.
  • The mattress should be firm and moderately hard; avoid water beds, pillows, etc.
  • Keep the baby beside one parent, not between both parents, and away from the edge of the bed, unless you’re using a bassinet beside the bed.
  • The sleep environment should be smoke-free.

Why Is Co-Sleeping Bad in Some Circumstances?

One of the most common questions about sleeping together is how it affects the couple’s sex life. Parents have shared that when the baby sleeps in the same room, maintaining intimacy requires some ingenuity.

Studies found that mothers who do not feel sufficiently supported by their partner when the baby is one month old are more likely to keep the baby with them at night well beyond the sixth month. And mothers who slept with their children when they were a month old but were happier in their relationship usually stopped sleeping in one room by the sixth month, which is the best age to transition from co-sleeping.

In line with this, prolonged periods of sleeping with a child were associated with increased levels of stress in the family—though it was not necessarily the cause of it. When a couple decides where a child should sleep, they should both be of one mind and be convinced that they are doing the best thing for their relationship, as well as the baby. Moreover, all possible safety precautions should be observed.

How Long Should I Co-Sleep?

When it comes to sleeping in a single bed with your child, the topic always elicits contradictory reactions. However, the practice is much more widespread because both parents are involved, and in most cultures, it’s considered better for the newborn.

From a sociological point of view, sleeping in a separate room wasn’t practiced before the 19th century. After that period, this tradition began to emerge in more affluent European cities as a kind of demonstration of social standing. Co-sleeping in other countries was also established as a comfortable and helpful way to make breastfeeding more natural.

What the data for the model in the US showed is that mothers who practice it become victims of criticism and, thus, unnecessary anxiety. This is in contrast with other parts of the world where prolonged safe bedsharing is culturally conditioned. But in the US, mothers who slept with their baby for a long time sometimes experienced difficulties and were not always sufficiently supported.

Keep in mind, when it lasts longer than six months, this practice seems to be associated with higher levels of family stress. However, if sharing a bedroom, there’s no predefined period about when to stop it.

How and When to Stop Co-Sleeping

According to the US National Sleep Foundation, 24% of parents say their children sleep in their beds at least partially through the night. Once parents decide to share the bed with their children, these children seldom want to leave their parents’ bed. Here, we provide some tips on how to convince your children to sleep in their own room:

Change a Child’s Habits Before Going to Bed

It’s essential to switch to night mode a couple of hours before going to bed. It can be quite tricky because biology is not on your side. Reading books and playing quiet games are necessary if you’re sleep training a toddler after co-sleeping. And avoid using electronic devices and eating right before sleep.

Get Started as Soon as Possible

A young child can easily be taught to sleep alone in a room while still in a crib. This way, the child won’t be able to get up and look for you in the night. Building the habit for your child visiting your bedroom just before bedtime creates a strong prerequisite for prolonged bed sharing.

Use Positive Language

Encourage your child in casual conversation; you can use positive examples of other acquaintances’ children who sleep alone. Truths told positively are much more motivating for a child.

Be Consistent and Make No Exceptions

It’s challenging to bring your children back to their room with their own baby bed at 3 a.m. when you need to get to work early the next day, but it’s essential not to compromise on this. Think about the long run. You may experience some problematic nights as you stop bed sharing with your toddler, but the results will be worth it.

Take Small Steps

Let’s be realistic—it isn’t always immediately possible for a child who has been sharing a bed to stay in their room, especially their bed, all night. Instead, try to make the separation gradually. Some parents say that once their children start getting used to sleeping in their beds, they sometimes want to go to their mom or dad for “only 15 minutes” or “until mom reads a story to me,” before going back to their own bed.

Make a Deal

You can “bargain” with your child when they sneak into your bed at night. Put your imagination to use and consider what your child likes and wants at any cost. To end bed sharing with toddlers, some parents offer the kids stickers, while others promise their child a long-awaited and much-coveted toy, the chance to visit a favorite place, or a movie night. 

Help Children Fall Asleep Alone

Instead of just telling your child to stay in their bed, you can teach them to fall asleep better. Tell them to stay in their baby bed, close their eyes, and think of something fun like what they want to do on their birthday. Giving a child something to think about is a great way to help them fall asleep again.

FAQs

At what age is it safe to co-sleep?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents co-sleep with their baby up to at least six months old and ideally a year. When the required safety measures are taken, this practice is safer than having the child sleep in a different room.

Is it safe to co-sleep with a newborn?

Co-sleeping with a newborn can be dangerous for your baby. It increases the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), especially within the first three months of life, for premature babies, and when the parents use drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or sedatives.

How do you co-sleep with a newborn?

When the right safety precautions are taken, you can safely co-sleep with your baby. Some of these measures include always putting your baby on their back to sleep, using a firm mattress, keeping the baby well and safely swaddled, and keeping any pillows and heavy blankets away from the baby.

Conclusion

As a parent, whether or not you decide to try co-sleeping with your baby is your personal decision. It may seem complicated, but it would be a good idea to look at all the pros and cons of sleeping with your kids. Whether you’re one of those parents who loves sleeping in the same bed with your children or you want your kids to sleep alone, keep doing it. Raising a child is the responsibility of every parent. Therefore, it’s advisable to analyze the situation and make sure it’s helpful for your child.

At medical school, it was easy to realize that sleep is crucial while studying during the many sleepless nights I spent. As a new mom, when the lack of sleep became even more evident, this was the real moment when I started appreciating the benefits of a good night’s sleep. Since sleeping is so essential to our health and immune system, I took it upon myself to educate people on different aspects of sleep by sharing the valuable information I have learned.