A few years ago, my daughter told me about a dream involving a giant bag of Doritos. The crinkles in the package had formed a ladder, and she had climbed them to reach the chips inside. The Doritos dream is just one of the countless parent-child memories I have experienced in the middle of the night. Since she was an infant, my daughter, now in the third grade, has shared my bed and my sleep. I certainly never expected to be a “co-sleeping” parent, but sharing a bed was easier when she was breastfeeding, and getting her out of the bed as she got older has been next to impossible.
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In most of the world, sleeping next to your child is a necessity: families of limited means live in cramped quarters. But in the affluent West, the practice is widely frowned on, not just by grandparents and friends, but by the medical community at large.
Still, it is far more common than many people think. Nearly 13% of parents in the US slept with their infants in 2000, up from 5.5% in 1993, according to a report last month in the journal Infant and Child Development. Ask parents if they sleep with their kids, and most will say no. But there is evidence that the prevalence of bed sharing is far greater than reported. Many parents are “closet co-sleepers”, fearful of disapproval if anyone finds out, notes James J. McKenna, professor of anthropology and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.
“They’re tired of being censured or criticized,” McKenna said. “It’s not just that their babies are being judged negatively for not being a good baby compared to the baby who sleeps by himself, but they’re being judged badly for having these babies and being needy.”
In fact, research shows that parents often talk about their children’s sleeping habits in terms of where the child starts off the night or where the child is supposed to sleep—not where the child ends up sleeping.
In a series of studies in Britain, scientists interviewed parents about their children’s sleeping habits, but also used infrared cameras to monitor the parents’ bedroom. The children often spent part of the night in the adults’ bed, but in about half those cases, the parents did not reveal that unless they were specifically asked. As a result, many experts say most of the data in the US vastly understates how common the practice really is.
One reason may be that adults feel guilty because paediatricians frown on co-sleeping. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said babies should sleep close to their parents but not in the same bed. The concern is that a sleeping parent could trap a baby in bed covers.
Although some studies suggest bed sharing puts children at higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome, the data is inconclusive.
One common concern is whether the practice interferes with the development of healthy sleeping habits. For example, studies in Italy, China and the US have found links between co-sleeping and frequent night wakings. But the studies are based on reports from the parents themselves, and some researchers question whether such data is all that meaningful. Kathleen Dyer, an assistant professor of child, family and consumer sciences at California State University in the US says this measurement bias may lead scientists to overstate the problems associated with bed sharing. “When you’re sleeping with your kid and he wakes up once during the night, you know about it because you’re there,” Dyer said. “If he’s in the next room, he’s still waking up at night, but you just don’t see it.”
Another fear is that bed sharing will take a heavy toll on a marriage. That is certainly likely if the parents disagree about where a child should sleep. But in cases where both parents agree on the sleeping arrangement, parents who sleep with their children are typically as happy as parents of solitary sleepers.
In a recent paper in Infant and Child Development, Dyer proposed co-sleeping families fall into three distinct categories. There are intentional co-sleepers—those who sleep with their children because they want to breastfeed for a long stretch and believe bed sharing is good for a child’s well-being. Another group is reactive co-sleepers, parents who don’t really want to sleep with their kids, but do so because they can’t get their children to sleep any other way or because financial hardship requires them to share a room.
And then there is a third group that she tentatively calls circumstantial co-sleepers—parents who sleep with their children occasionally because of circumstances such as sharing a bed on a family vacation, or because the child is sick.
Bed sharing is most likely of greatest concern among reactive co-sleepers, Dyer says, because the practice is essentially forced on the parents. In those cases, the practice is likely to be stressful.
When my daughter was born, I certainly didn’t want her in my bed (I was recovering from a Caesarean section). But the nurses insisted that I hold her in my hospital bed because her cries were disturbing the other babies. I didn’t have the fortitude to let her “cry it out” so, with the encouragement of my paediatrician, I made my peace with the situation.
It hasn’t been easy. Today, my daughter is far more independent about sleep, venturing to sleepovers at friends’ houses, and sleeping some nights in her own bed. And while there are still many nights when she crawls into my bed, my paediatrician assures me it’s nothing to worry about. “One day you will wake up, and she won’t be there,” he says.
©2007/The New York Times
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