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Sunday, 25 March 2001

Co-Sleeping: Good for Parents, Good for Baby

Written by  Ruth Lockshin

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Twenty years later, I still have vivid memories of my first year as a parent, dreading bedtime.

Our daughter would fall asleep with little trouble. That wasn't the problem, especially after my husband and I figured out that waiting for her to fall asleep when she was tired was easier than trying to "put" her to sleep when we were tired. But would she stay asleep for a few hours, or would she awaken to nurse after 45 minutes?

We approached every night with apprehension. Some nights she would sleep for a few hours and I would say triumphantly, "See, she's getting into a good pattern now!" But as the weeks went on, the pattern became harder to detect. Of course we got the usual contradictory advice - wean her, nurse her more often during the day, start solids, let her cry it out.

Several friends encouraged me to take our baby into bed with us, to make it easier to nurse her. But to me, that seemed counter-productive. If she were in bed with us, surely our movements would stimulate her to wake and nurse more often - not at all what we wanted.

Finally, when she was about five months old and I once again believed that she had settled into a "pattern," we joined my parents for a Florida vacation. The sun and sand were wonderful and relaxing, but in the mornings I cried to my sympathetic father that we had ruined her pattern by leaving home, and that I was exhausted. Everything was unfamiliar to our baby - no wonder she woke frequently at night to make sure that we were still there!

My father, a pediatrician, reminded me that many mothers he knew felt more rested when they took their babies into bed with them. Desperate, I decided to try it.
At first, it was hard for me to get used to sleeping with a noisy, active baby. (My husband didn't mind - he moved another bed into our room and if he couldn't fall back to sleep in our bed, he would move over.) But while I was just as tired, at least I was warmer, since I no longer had to get out of bed so many times.

The months wore on, until one morning a well-meaning friend asked me the dreaded question, "How many times does she wake at night?" I realized I didn't know the answer. I had slept through her nursing sessions so successfully that I wasn't even aware of how often she nursed! This was a milestone.

Another milestone occurred one night when we slept in a hotel room with two double beds. We slept better there than we had since our daughter was born, so we immediately invested in another double bed for our own room.

After that, we never used a crib again. Our three other children shared our bed(s) from the moment of their births, and my early family bed dread was a thing of the past. I changed my definition of "sleeping through the night." The baby slept through the night as long as she kept her eyes closed. If she woke up, nursed, and went back to sleep, that was sleeping through the night. By that definition, our babies all slept through the night by about 6 weeks! I slept through the nursing too and felt much more rested in the morning.


Like any college-educated mother, I used our bedroom as a laboratory at night and I read the professional literature about our experiment during the day. Just because it was more restful, cozier and more comfortable, did that mean that it was the best thing for the baby?

I learned from Tine Thevenin's classic book, The Family Bed, that "separate sleeping is mainly a social custom" and has been the norm in the West only for a hundred years or so. Thevenin shows from her own studies and others that fears of "overlying," a term with a biblical ring, are not well grounded. These deaths are not caused by mothers sleeping with their babies, but are rather cases of SIDS, which consistently occur around the world at the rate of 2-3 per 1000 live births.

Thevenin's book was first published in 1976; since then there have been several studies on the topic. Dr. William Sears, in his popular 1990 book, Nighttime Parenting, advocates co-sleeping as a way for parents to actually lower the risk of SIDS in their babies. According to Dr. Sears, "anthropological studies have shown that the rate of SIDS is approximately three to four times higher in cultures where mothers do not sleep with their babies."

Dr. James McKenna, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of a sleep laboratory study of co-sleeping, said in a statement in September 1999 that special precautions need to be taken to minimize catastrophic accidents such as making sure that mothers do not smoke and are not desensitized by drugs or alcohol. "However, the need for such precautions is no more an argument against all co-sleeping...than is the reality of infants accidentally strangling...alone in cribs a reason to recommend against all solitary...infant sleep."

Even Penelope Leach, the world-famous child care expert, recently wrote in the New York Times: "Being close at night helps parents bond with their babies... As long as the parents don't drink, smoke, sleep with thick comforters or put babies on their stomachs, there is no real evidence against sleeping with a baby, as most people in the world do."

My husband and I also wondered about the psychological effects of sharing the marital bed. Our marriage seemed to be thriving, but what about others?

According to Sandra Rigazio-Digilio, PhD, professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Connecticut, "In healthy families, this nighttime togetherness can be a bonding experience for children and parents. If...both partners agree this will make feeding easier and make a child feel bonded, then this can...increase the well being of family members. However, if co-sleeping is being used as a way to keep parents apart...it is inappropriate."

On a recent 20/20 show, one parent said:

"The more we thought about it, and especially when you look down at this little tiny baby and people are starting to tell you, 'Oh, you've got to start to separate yourself. You've got to put that baby in this other room.' And you look down at this little baby, and it just doesn't make sense. You know, the baby needs someone with them all the time, and that's the way it really should be."

Last modified on Thursday, 04 April 2013 10:24
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Ruth Lockshin

Ruth Lockshin

Ruth Lockshin, freelance writer and editor, was born and raised in Chicago, has a BA in history from Brandeis University and currently lives in Toronto. She was a breast-feeding counselor for 15 years. She and her husband, Professor Marty Lockshin, have four children and a growing brood of grandchildren. She is also proud to be known as the daughter of the late Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, author of Confessions of a Medical Heretic and How to Raise A Healthy Child in Spite of Your Doctor.

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