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CO-SLEEPING

What is called “co-sleeping” — kids sleeping in their parents’ bed — is popular today among a small minority of very devoted parents who passionately believe that young children need close bodily contact with their parents.

Nearly every family admits to occasional co-sleeping. Whenever there was a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, my husband and I could expect two frightened toddlers and a frantic Schnauzer to join us.

Most parents allow young children into their bed, at least on occasion. 92% of middle-class US families report taking a sick or frightened child into their bed. About 60% of these children go back or are taken back to their own bed within a half hour, another 31% stay in the big bed until they are asleep, and only 1% stay the rest of the night.

Co-sleeping is more common among families in poverty — especially big families who have no other options, in single parent households, and among ethnic minorities or families from other cultures. Many parents report co-sleeping when traveling to both control expenses and keep an eye on the children. Some mothers admit to taking the children into their bed when Daddy is away.

As one would expect, co-sleeping is more common among younger children. Statistically, co-sleeping at least on occasion, is common in preschoolers, atypical for elementary schoolers and unusual for adolescents.

Numerous studies have shown that the majority of parents in our country do not consider co-sleeping normative or appropriate. This probably reflects our affluence, the American ideals of individual self-reliance and the influence of those giving parenting advice, including Dr. Spock, who advocate putting babies in their own cribs.

But co-sleeping is very popular these days among a group of highly educated and committed parents who feel deeply that bonding is the most important aspect of parenting and that physical closeness at night is the sine qua non of bonding. These parents, influenced by a few authors who espouse “attachment parenting” believe in co-sleeping with an ideological passion.

I get many letters disagreeing with me when I take a side on any politicized issue, but I do not favor co-sleeping.

Yes, it is common in other cultures and was the norm in other eras. But we are socializing our children to our own culture in our own times.

No, co-sleeping is not associated with an increased incidence of sexual abuse. But there is some evidence of an increased incidence of sleep problems in children. Although it seems counter-intuitive, children who co-sleep are MORE likely to have frequent night waking and difficulty in falling asleep than children who sleep alone. Kids need lots of room to move around when they are asleep and the family bed can get crowded.

There is a safety issue. The Consumer Product Safety Commission identified 515 deaths in infants sleeping in adult beds over an eight-year period. 121 of the deaths were due to “overlaying” in which the infant was found underneath an adult or compressed by an adult or other child. 394 deaths were due to entrapment in the bed structure or suffocation from sleeping face down on a soft bed or bedding. While this is an infinitesimal number of the nearly 4 million babies born each year, every case is a needless tragedy.

Now we come to “attachment parenting”. Personally and frankly I am much more interested in parents attaching to their children when awake than when asleep. Of course attachment is important, so important that Mother Nature ensures it by building in predictable adult responses to hearing an infant’s cry and looking at a baby’s face.

As a parenting educator, I am concerned about how parents respond to their children during the day. Are parents observing and figuring out their newborn’s personality and temperament? Are parents knowledgeable about child development in general, and development in their own child specifically? Do parents understand the importance of attentiveness and attentive time? Do they realize the difference between child-centered activities and merely dragging the kids along? Are they sensitive to their child’s needs? Are they strong enough to set limits?

There is no evidence that co-sleeping (provided parents pay attention to safety) will harm a child although it may interfere with sleep in both parent and child as well as intimacy between the parents. But co-sleeping does not ensure either closeness or good parenting. Being AWAKE and AWARE does that.

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