There is a lot of controversy regarding co-sleeping with children. In some cultures, it is normal and expected that families sleep together. In others, co-sleeping is taboo. In Western societies it is typical to encourage separate sleeping quarters for parents and their children from as early as infancy.
At birth, it is common practice to put a baby directly on the mother’s bare chest, skin to skin, to promote bonding and to encourage successful breastfeeding. Babies are born with a walking and crawling reflex, present for the first few weeks of life. This gives newborns the ability to make their own way and self-attach to their mothers’ breasts. While in the hospital, babies are encouraged to room with their mothers so that this process of bonding can continue. Ultimately, if all occurs as it should, babies thrive and are less likely to encounter problems under these circumstances. Even partners are welcomed so the whole family can bond together.
Gone are the days when babies were left parked in the hospital nursery, intermittently brought out to their mothers for feeding. Nowadays, the family unit is encouraged to stay close together. Yet as soon as the family leaves the hospital, this bonding process is often disrupted. The focus turns to conforming to what society expects—in other words, establishing habits such as separate sleeping arrangements (there’s usually a nursery set up) and encouraging the baby to sleep through the night, which goes against their natural impulses. Infants require frequent feeding and are more settled and content in the vicinity of a parent. Who in the animal kingdom sleeps away from their young?
At birth, a human baby is still very immature and has no reasoning or recognition of his or her whereabouts. Infants must rely completely on their senses. They are comforted by their parents’ voices, touch, and scent. A baby’s only way of communicating is through crying, and a parent will instinctively want to attend to her needs. At this early age, babies need to be close to their parents, especially at night when their sense of sight is lost. If left alone in a dark place without the soothing smell, sound, and touch of her parent, a baby may be overcome with a sense of helplessness.
Research has revealed that babies thrive when they are exposed to human contact. Kangaroo nursing—a technique in which the baby is taken from the intensive-care cot and placed against mothers’ skin in a pouch-like fashion— was developed for the treatment of premature infants. It was noted that these babies’ vital signs stabilized, their core temperatures improved, and they were quicker to gain weight than their counterparts who did not receive this treatment. My nephew, now a young adult, was born at 24 weeks’ gestation. He was kangaroo nursed, and video footage evidences that his whole demeanor altered during this period.
Babies and young children require constant parental attention, day and night, and if they sleep in a separate room they shouldn’t be left to cry it out if they are unsettled. They need to feel safe and cared for, and if that means sleeping in the same bed or room as the parent, then l believe that they should. Cortisol, a stress-related hormone, can suppress immunity, growth, and brain development if released in high quantities. A child so often needs his or her parent for comfort and reassurance. Why should it be any different at night?
Co-sleeping is an individual choice, and it has been revealed that it doesn’t cause any detrimental effects, such as insecurity or clinginess. In fact, studies have shown that children who sleep with their parents develop high self-esteem, are happy, and are less likely to develop anxiety issues. It is important that all family members get adequate sleep. Sleep can certainly be disrupted if two, three, or more people are all cramped into one bed. Co-sleeping habits shouldn’t lead to sleep deprivation or interfere with a couple’s intimacy. Parents should do whatever works best for their families, and if they choose to bed or room share, they should not be made to feel guilty.
Co-sleeping is easier in single-parent families, particularly with just one child. There is usually plenty of room, and you don’t have to worry about disturbing a partner. Providing you’re not just sharing your bed to combat your own sense of loneliness, co-sleeping has some added benefits. It allows shared time together, particularly important for situations in which the single parent has a full-time job and is busy playing catch-up when he or she gets home. If you have a child who’s having trouble sleeping through the night, or who is afraid of the dark or has night terrors, then bundling up with you will not only provide the security your child needs, it will also assure you of a better sleep. The demands of parenting alone are taxing, and so it’s important to have a good night’s sleep, whichever way you can get it.
When my son was younger, he was afraid to sleep in his own room, as it was too far away from mine. He was scared that something might happen to me during the night. This fear was exacerbated by not having anyone else in the house. If we had a houseguest, such as his grandmother, he felt more secure. I did a little research on who was crawling into his or her parents’ beds among the children of friends of mine—those with both partnered and single parents— and found that it was still quite common practice among primary school–age children.
I am all for co-sleeping. I truly believe this arrangement has health benefits. I remember as a child how it felt when my father crawled into bed with me. There were four of us to choose from, and l would hope it would be my turn. I slept on the bottom bunk, so my chances were good. I didn’t care that I was shuffled a little too close to the wall. Nor was I the least bit bothered by the fact that his warm breath tickled my neck or that he snored so strongly that he sucked in the curtains. None of this mattered to me. His arm around my body, hugging me tightly, conveyed love and security. There was nothing to be afraid of, as I was safe in my father’s arms.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #55.
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