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Should you let your child sleep in your bed? A look into the habits of co-sleeping families

Some say that co-sleeping promotes bonding and helps children feel safe. Others say that it will become a bad habit that you will regret later. Let’s not forget that in many parts of the world sleeping with your child is a necessity. Families with limited means often sleep in cramped conditions, while parents in the more affluent societies worry about the psychological effect of co-sleeping. Perhaps our worries are wasted.

Personal choices and experiences

I lifted my newly born, lightly crying son from his bassinet and laid him on my chest. He stopped crying immediately and settled back to sleep. Just as quickly as he settled, the chief night nurse appeared, observing us closely with arched eyebrow.

“Now you’ve started something you will never be able to stop,” she said, before spinning on her heels and exiting the ward. I rolled my eyeballs behind her back in mock horror. But I think of her each morning as I lift a grumbling boy from his cot and bring him to lie with me. He’s now too heavy to lie on my chest, but he happily settles for a close cuddle instead and sinks back into sleep.

I call my friend Sarah whose six-year-old son, Daniel, has his bed in their room. In the wee hours of the morning, he pads across the two-metre divide between his bed and theirs and crawls in with mom and dad. What about your sex life, I ask? Oh we manage, she tells me in a tone that leads me to believe sex on the couch, car and compactum might be making a comeback.

Sarah is tough and opinionated. Before having a child, she spent a good deal of time telling everyone she met with children that they should not share their bed if they expected to stay married. The closest she ever got as a child to the parental bed was a mattress on the floor when she was sick.

I am with her on this one. Certainly, as a child I would never have dreamed of getting into bed with my parents. I may have tiptoed across the house to tell my mother about a wet bed or a bad dream, but getting into their bed?

Happiness and co-sleeping

So what has changed over the years? Sarah recalls a need for sleep in the early days so Daniel slept with her. But, then he developed an aversion to his cot. Then to going to bed altogether.

“He would settle in his room, but five minutes later would appear in ours. I tried tough love, I even bought a book on the subject – nothing worked,” she explains.

But are they the worse for wear? Not at all, Sarah says. “We are all big and in one double bed, so we cosy up and squash each other and we all love it.”

I start wondering if this sleep shifting turnaround has a lot to do with how we live our waking hours and how non-existent our down time is. Are we perhaps too tired in this day and age to lean over the cot and rub a sore tum-tum when we could just as easily do it lying down in our own warm bed? Is there any truth in the theory that the waking time we spend with one another has become shorter. And, so bringing the child into the bed with us makes us feel closer to a child we have missed all day?

Whatever the reason, never before has a parenting topic cast such strong aspersions or been quite so certain in its judgement – from both sides it seems.

No definitive research results

Days spent scrolling through research and reading great volumes reveal nothing. There are opinions.

Co-sleeping will apparently not damage your children. Care must be taken with babies if either parent has been drinking or taking drugs or is severely sleep deprived. However, research has thus far revealed no reasons not to co-sleep.

On the contrary, having your toddler lying lengthways across your bed and giving you a good kick in the ribs may lead to a healthier and happier child. James McKenna is a co-sleeping expert based at the Center for Behavioural Studies of Mother-Infant Sleep at Notre Dame University in the US. He says: “The few psychological studies which are available suggest that children who have co-slept in a loving and safe environment become better adjusted adults than those who were encouraged to sleep without parental contact or reassurance.”

He points out that it is only in the past 200 years – and mostly in Western industrialised societies – that parents have considered it normal and biologically appropriate for a mother and infant to sleep apart.

Overall wellbeing of child a factor

Minette Coetzee is a registered nurse with additional professional qualifications in paediatric nursing, midwifery, psychiatry and community health nursing. She believes that the long-term health outcome of the child and emerging adult is largely dependent on the initial interaction and relationship with the mother. She points out that the health she speaks of goes beyond the common winter cold and is in fact a whole sense of wellness. One that includes cognitive and emotional wellbeing as well as physiological health.

The age-old fear that the child will be spoilt and must acquire early independence falls on deaf ears with Coetzee. She says that the healthier the baby’s attachment with the mother, the more secure the child will become.

Potential for creating tension

However, Coetzee cautions that if there are opposing opinions between the parents as to where the child should sleep, these conflicting views may create unnecessary tension and the child may then be better off sleeping in his own space. Furthermore, she adds, there are some babies who prefer their own space – every child, family environment and situation differs and must be dealt with according to those particular needs.

Who are you doing it for?

Yvonne Herring of the Sophia Family Centre in Cape Town offers an insightful comment: “We might need babies, but they decide when they need us and when they don’t.” This, she believes is what we must keep in mind should we choose to share the parental bed with our children.

“Are you sleeping with your baby to ensure a good night’s rest or is your baby there for your comfort and security?” And she suggests all parents should ask themselves this question before embarking on the co-sleeping option.

Donna Cobban

Need some help with bedtime battles…read here.