It is eight o’clock, and Rebecca A. tucks her daughter Nora in to the family bed. Although her daughter has her own bed, she has never slept in it. Instead, the family of three plans to share one bed until Nora shows interest in sleeping on her own.
Like many parents, Rebecca and her husband share their bed with their toddler. Her husband Tony is from Indonesia, where it is customary for all young children to share their parents’ bed until adolescence. He and his eight siblings slept in their parents’ bed, and he finds the US tradition of a separate baby’s room “weird”. Instead, he is accustomed to the closeness of a shared space. He explains that “When the time’s right [to move Nora to her own bed], we’ll know.”
Rebecca and Tony are not alone. According to Dr. Danny Lewin, director of the Sleep Disorders Medicine Program in the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, co-sleeping is a common practice in about 75% of the world.
“That closeness of proximity at night is probably one of the most powerful cues to help us…let down and let go,” stated Lewin during a parenting seminar in 2011. “So a child who does not want to sleep alone at night is doing something very, very natural.”
However, mainstream US physicians oppose the practice. In its 2011 policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advocates for “room-sharing without bed-sharing”, as this “decreases the risk of SIDS by as much as 50%.”
According to WebMD, SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is an unexplained death of a healthy infant and is one of the most common causes of death in babies from birth to 12 months. The Mayo Clinic identifies “sleeping with parents” as an environmental factor that increases the risk of SIDS.
The AAP statement explains that room-sharing is a beneficial practice because it “facilitates breastfeeding, comforting, and monitoring” while preventing suffocation. “Devices promoted to make bed-sharing ‘safe’ (e.g., in-bed co-sleepers) are not recommended.”
Nevertheless, parents who regularly co-sleep with their children seem to agree on its benefits. They identify these as less maternal stress and worrying over young infants, better sleep for the mother and baby; and easier breastfeeding and comforting through the night.
Abby, a lactation consultant and mother of two, explains that she chose to co-sleep with both of her children in order to “facilitate [emotional] attachment and breastfeeding,” because she did not have to get up when the babies awakened to feed.
Another mom identifies peace of mind as the primary benefit of sharing her bed with her baby: “knowing your baby's ok at all times without the freak-outs of running to the nursery, wondering if they're breathing.”
According to a poll by SciJourner of 30 parents whose children share their bed, cons are mainly lack of sexual intimacy and children with increased dependence on the parents.
One mom explains that her husband initially felt that she was paying more attention to their infant son.
“That said, I think there is a way to find a balance and still be able to have a sex life, but I think moms need to be aware of how their husbands feel about it,” she says. “If you have a husband who is feeling overlooked and has jealousy issues, it may be worth re-thinking and discussing as a couple.”
Jessica, a mother of a toddler boy, adds, “It's still difficult to get [her son; to go to sleep on his own.”
Recent research shows that co-sleeping may have unexpected benefits. According to 2012 study headed by Lee T. Gettler, an anthropologist now at the University of Notre Dame, fathers who co-sleep with their children have a lower average level of testosterone at night and a sharper decline in testosterone levels throughout the day. The new study mirrors earlier work with over 350 fathers in an urban area of the Philippines that found a similar drop in testosterone levels with co-sleeping.
In an another study from 2011, Gettler and colleagues showed that while high levels of testosterone contributed to mating success, levels typically dropped rapidly in fathers who were actively involved in their children’s daily care.
For now, Rebecca and Tony will continue to share their bed with their daughter. “I want her to move to her bed when she is ready." Kristen Levin
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