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Understanding Co-sleeping

                                                by Mizin P. Kawasaki, MD

 

What is co-sleeping?  Co-sleeping is a family arrangement that enables children to sleep with their parents.  The term "family bed" has been coined by others, and Tine Thevenin has written a popular book about this subject. 

Co-sleeping is a very natural part of daily life for many families throughout the world.  It is a cooperative effort that encourages family well-being.  This article will attempt to dispel some myths about co-sleeping.

Myths about co-sleeping

Myth #1:  It is perverse for parents and children to co-sleep in the same bed.

The parental bed is stigmatized as a den of sin and desire, even though most parents, particularly parents of a newborn, use the bed primarily for sleeping.  The majority of healthy adults, which includes parents, sleep in bed so that they may feel rejuvenated upon awakening in the morning.  Sexual activity in the parental bed is a real and healthy occurrence, but sleeping is the predominant activity in bed. 

Co-sleeping enables parents and children to sleep together in the same bed and there is nothing perverse about this in healthy families.  In reality, perversity is perpetrated by those persons who never received the nurturing stimulation of loving and caring interaction that an activity like co-sleeping offers. 

The developmental neuropsychologist and cross-cultural psychologist, Dr. James W. Prescott, has researched criminal behavior for over two decades.  He has challenged the law enforcement community to present him one hardened criminal who was breastfed for over two years. [1]

Dr. Prescott is convinced that there is no hardened criminal who would meet that qualification.  The reason is that the individual who has been loved unconditionally and nurtured will develop into a humane being.  It is unlikely that he will develop into a callous and inhumane criminal or a pervert if he received the benefits of healthy human interaction, such as breastfeeding, carrying, and co-sleeping.

The majority of parents who wish to co-sleep with their children are healthy, humane beings.  They love and respect their children not only as their charges but as fellow human beings.  The parents recognize their youngsters’ inability to fend for themselves, and they do their best to respond wisely to their youngsters’ needs.  Responding to a child’s need to co-sleep with her parents is not perverse at all:  it is perverse to ignore a child’s needs.

Myth #2:  A child needs to sleep alone through the night. 

One must consider that a child who is lovingly cared for throughout the day would need to be as close to the same caregiver, her mother, during the night.  If so, how can a young child be excluded from the parental bed? 

If parents were co-sleeping in the same bed before the arrival of their firstborn child, is there any reason that the baby should not join them in the same bed?  Even if a baby seems to prefer sleeping alone, it is highly questionable whether she should sleep alone.  The fact is that human babies need human contact around the clock, be it day or night.

Human infants are born in a highly immature and dependent state because they are only “half-done.”  As Ashley Montagu has written, the human infant is remarkably immature because her gestation in the womb encompassed only the first half of her true gestation. [2] 

The brain of the human fetus grows so rapidly and to such a large size in the womb that the baby must emerge after nine months of gestation.  Otherwise, neither the baby nor the mother could survive childbirth.  The baby’s brain continues to grow quickly after birth, such that its volume more than doubles in the first year.  This fact alone indicates the enormous amount of learning and maturation that occurs during infancy.

At around the age of nine to ten months, the baby will begin to move about on her own by crawling, and this is a milestone that marks the end of the gestation outside the womb. [3]  In other words, from the time of birth until the infant crawls about on her own, she completes the growth and development that should but cannot occur in the womb.

Ashley Montagu has written that the baby needs “a womb with a view” after birth.  This external womb can be best provided by a loving and caring mother who attends to her baby’s various needs.  The baby is a highly dependent being, especially during the first year of life, whose needs must be satisfied in order for healthy maturation to occur.

A healthy newborn may sleep more than sixteen hours per day, and a great deal of that time can and should be spent close to her mother’s body.  A young baby can be carried in a sling or baby carrier during the day.  A mother who maintains her baby close to her body provides the stimulation that will foster healthy growth and development outside the womb. 

This closeness between mother and baby can and should ideally occur at nighttime also.  A baby will most likely feel comfortable and at ease if she is snuggled close to her mother.  A mother’s loving presence also assures the infant of tactile stimulation, which is important since it plays an important, but often unrecognized, role in encouraging the infant to breathe deeply.  [4] 

The cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) remains unidentified, but the prevalent theory is that vulnerable babies, usually those under the age of one year, may breathe shallowly and fall into apneic (nonbreathing) states.  In Neonatal Intensive Care Units, preterm infants may be afflicted with apnea spells.  The immediate remedy applied by nurses is a mere touch to the apneic infant’s skin. 

More vigorous tactile stimulation may be given to those infants who do not respond to a light touch.  The usual result is that the infant begins to breathe normally again.  Since even healthy young infants may breathe shallowly, there may be greater cause for a mother to be close by in case a little tactile stimulation will encourage the baby to breathe more deeply.  Co-sleeping provides the baby with the skin to skin contact that may encourage deeper breathing.

Myth #3:  Parents should not be inconvenienced by their baby’s needs during the night.

During the night, an infant awakens frequently because her sleep cycle of about 50-60 minutes is shorter than an adult’s, which is about 90 minutes. [5] Many parents find this normal infant sleeping pattern to be bothersome since it does not correspond with their own sleeping pattern and need for sleep. 

It seems that some parents may consider their baby’s different sleep pattern to be bothersome.  In fact, they may think that the baby is trying to manipulate them by awakening more frequently.  Thus, a baby’s normal sleeping pattern, which is part of her healthy infant development, may be misconstrued to be an infant’s conscious attempt to interfere with her parents’ sleep. 

It must be stressed that a healthy baby does not consciously and willfully interfere with her parents’ sleep.  A healthy baby experiences tremendous changes after birth, and her body must adapt itself to the challenges of functioning independently of the womb.  Truly, the first year of life is comparable to a gestation outside of the womb, as Ashley Montagu has written so often. 

Consider the baby’s immature digestive tract.  In the womb, there was no need for ingestion, digestion, or elimination.  Outside the womb, though, there is a definite need for these bodily functions to begin operating.  The baby must eat and provide his growing body with nourishment.

The baby’s mother produces the ideal nourishment for the newborn:  colostrum.  The colostrum is important and vital to the well-being of the newborn, for it provides the perfect substance to help activate the baby’s digestive and immune systems. [6]  Colostrum is a laxative that helps to clear out the meconium in the baby’s digestive tract and it is rich in lactoglobulin which provides the baby with immunizing factors against various diseases.  [7] 

The amount of colostrum produced in the first few days of life is only approximately 50 cc (the equivalent of 10 teaspoons) per day.  [8]  The amount may be small, but it just right to encourage the healthy development of the infant’s gut and immune system.  The benefits of breastfeeding are incalculable to the infant, and they may be transmitted to the breastfed baby throughout the day and night.

If one understands the importance of breastfeeding, how is it possible to withhold breast milk from the baby, except when one truly cannot nurse because of severe physical disability, the need for medications that may pass through the breast milk, or an infectious state that precludes breastfeeding?  It may seem inconvenient that mothers need to nurse throughout the day and night, but this is a cultural perception of what inconvenience is. 

Inconvenience is completely subjective.  The person who believes that nursing a baby is inconvenient may willingly get out of bed to heat up a bottle of infant formula several times a night.  In contrast, another mother may willingly nurse a hungry infant during the night but would feel inconvenienced by the need to get out of bed to fetch a bottle of formula. 

It may be politically incorrect to state the obvious, which is that the mother-infant pair should be inseparable during the early years of life.  This is especially true during the first year of life because young babies need to breastfeed frequently, regardless of the time of day. 

From the newborn period onward, a mother’s breast milk changes moment to moment to accommodate the baby’s growing needs.  The two lives of mother and baby are intimately entwined in a mutually cooperative and beneficial relationship.  The activity of breastfeeding provides the optimal nourishment and physical intimacy for the baby’s healthy growth and development. 

Breastfeeding also encourages the communication of love between the baby and her mother. Many mothers become motherly and loving as a result of the hormonal influences brought about by breastfeeding.  They enjoy mothering and breastfeeding as responsibilities and not as inconveniences.

Myth #4:  A child is not harmed by forcing her to sleep alone through the night.

There are babies who may sleep through the night, but every young baby is unique.  Each has a different temperament with variable needs.  Parents who would readily embrace the baby who sleeps on her own ought to behave similarly toward the baby who cannot sleep alone.  

In light of the individuality of babies, parents need to be tolerant and understanding.  Not all babies can sleep alone at night and to attempt to make these youngsters sleep alone is unhealthy.  It is analogous to trying to force a circular block to fit into a triangular opening.  It cannot be done without damaging the circular block and the fit will never be right. 

At this point, we are not discussing inanimate objects but living human babies.  Dr. Richard Ferber, a sleeping expert well known to the general public, promotes the mistaken belief that young babies and children can and should be taught to sleep alone.  He has popularized a method that purports to succeed in getting any youngster to sleep through the night. 

The method entails separating one’s baby from any human touch before the baby begins to nod off to sleep.  The baby is required to remain alone, accompanied only by inanimate objects such as pacifiers and stuffed animals.  The baby is placed in the crib and great importance is attached to the baby’s visual registration of the crib as her sleeping place.  Dr. Ferber recommends the baby to be isolated for gradually increasing lengths of time, with mechanical precision. 

Ashley Montagu remarks that the clock is one of the premier symbols of the dehumanized condition of humankind. [9]  It is unsurprising that Dr. Ferber depends completely upon the clock to ritualize a young baby’s separation from the loving parents upon whom she depends.  It is evident that the baby’s dependency is a human one and that Dr. Ferber’s efforts to break that human dependency are inhumane.

Parents who have endured listening to their baby cry for even one long minute understand the torture of hearing their baby suffer.  If parents are so tortured, then one can readily imagine how the baby is even more tortured.  Yet parents are asked to be patient and to endure the baby’s crying so that she will learn to sleep through the night. 

If one stops to think whether or not this is reasonable, one would aver unequivocally that nothing could be more unsound than tormenting one’s own baby.  A young baby cannot speak and articulate her pain, but she can cry.  If a baby’s own parents ignore her cries, who else will heed them?  It is clear from the bestselling nature of Dr. Ferber’s book that millions of parents are willing to ignore their own babies’ cries. 

There are parents who use the Ferber method with such zeal that their neighbors have intervened by calling the police to report child abuse.  The irony is that many parents think that they are doing something right and good for their baby by forcing her to sleep on her own through the night, even if that means the baby cries for hours. 

As mortifying as intervention by the police or a neighbor may be, parents should be able to reflect upon what exactly they are trying to accomplish.  Parents must listen to their own consciences and hearts even though today’s child experts and medical practitioners inform them that a baby can be left crying and unattended for prolonged periods of time.

Dr. Prescott has criticized the cruel nature of regimenting a baby’s sleeping habits and he criticizes the Ferber sleeping regimen.[10]  He notes that parents who follow Dr. Ferber’s advice ignore not only their baby’s cries but other disturbing behaviors that indicate the severity of the baby’s distress. 

In his book, for example, Dr. Ferber acknowledges that babies will engage in repetitious and stimulating behaviors, like head banging, body rocking, and head rolling.  He considers these behaviors to be normal. [11]  Dr. Prescott, on the other hand, disputes this dismissive interpretation of these behaviors. 

Dr Prescott offers a more sensible understanding of the damage the baby may experience as a result of engaging in repetitious and stimulating behaviors.  He has researched the vestibular-cerebellar complex in the brain, an area that is not generally well understood.  He describes the vestibular-cerebellar complex as being the “environmental umbilical cord” that keeps a baby bonded to her mother.[12]

Dr. Prescott notes that the vestibular sensory fibers are fully myelinated at birth, which implies that the nerves transmit information to the cerebellum as fast as they will in the future. The system is also functional during pregnancy since the fetus evidently receives vestibular sensory stimulation by floating and moving about in the womb.  

Dr. Prescott contends that the well-being of a baby is determined by two different systems that work in conjunction with each other.  First, the baby needs the touch and intimacy that is provided by activities like breastfeeding and co-sleeping.  Second, the baby also needs the body movement that arises from being held and carried.  A baby who is carried by her mother frequently receives the correct sensory stimulation for the healthy development of the vestibular-cerebellar complex. [13]

One must imagine how distressed a baby is if she does not wish to sleep alone but is forced to because her parents believe that this is the right thing to do.  The baby is left crying alone in her crib, and she is abandoned by her parents who wait behind a closed or slightly ajar door with a timer in hand. 

Parents may be resolved to endure their baby’s crying.  This is a scenario that is repeated in many homes each night with the hoped for consequence, which is teaching the baby to sleep alone. 

One should consider, however, the baby’s needs.  What if the baby only seeks the comfort, love, and warmth of her mother’s embrace?  How is she able to receive the healthy stimulation that will soothe her if her mother will not carry her or be nearby in bed? 

When a baby does not receive such stimulation, she may engage in self-stimulation that purports to compensate for the lack of healthy stimulation that she requires for satisfaction of her needs.  Whereas a simple hug or embrace would provide just the right kind of stimulation the baby needs, the baby resorts to complicated forms of self-stimulation, like head banging, body rocking, and head rolling. 

Dr. Prescott’s perspective on self-stimulating behaviors in babies offers a better understanding of the abnormal nature of a baby’s repetitive body movements.  Those babies who engage repeatedly in such movements are deprived of the healthy stimulation that would obviate the need for such drastic self-stimulation. 

Very importantly, Dr. Prescott also notes the fragility of the young baby’s brain. Abnormal body movements in infancy may have potentially damaging effects upon the delicate blood vessels in the brain, as well as the developing brain neurons and connections. 

Myth #5:  The mother-infant bond is not impaired by the Ferber method.

The physical consequences of using the Ferber method have been discussed, but there is also the risk of breaching the trust that exists between mother and baby.  A mother who has carried her baby in the womb has an undeniable bond with her baby, yet the intervention of medical procedures and hospital birthing have contributed to undermining this essential human bond. 

There is no bond more important in human life than the mother-infant bond.  An infant is intimately connected to her mother in the womb and outside the womb.  The Ferber method, unfortunately, helps to break down the healthy mother-infant bond because it separates the baby forcibly from her mother. 

Klaus, Kennell, and Klaus have studied infant-mother bonding for decades.  In their book Bonding,they present evidence that the newborn and mother should be in intimate contact immediately after birth.  Under optimal circumstances, every healthy newborn should be dried quickly and placed promptly onto her mother’s warm abdomen. 

Research has shown that the baby, if left undisturbed on her mother’s abdomen in a quiet environment, initiates a precise sequence of events.  After being dried and placed on her mother’s abdomen, a healthy newborn gradually crawls up her mother’s abdomen, finds the areola, and latches on to suckle. [14] This finding confirms the importance of a mother’s availability from the immediate newborn period onward. 

If the breasts are available, then the baby will seek to nurse.  On the contrary, a mother’s absence from the newborn’s immediate environment makes it difficult for the baby to latch on to the breast and learn to suckle at the breast.

From this perspective, it is imperative for the baby and mother to be placed together immediately after birth since the baby possesses the capability to initiate breastfeeding.  As Ashley Montagu has pointed out repeatedly, capability is only potential whereas ability is fulfillment of that potential.

If a newborn is not kept near her mother, then she may have difficulty manifesting the capability to breastfeed.  Regrettably, the separation of infant from mother is the norm for most hospital births. 

The research cited by Klaus, Kennell, and Klaus also clarifies how simply a newborn can be satisfied by remaining close to her mother.  For instance, she can feel the warmth of her mother’s skin as she lies comfortably on her mother’s abdomen. 

The need for skin to skin contact is in the immediate newborn period, and it does not disappear after only a few weeks or months after birth.  In fact, it remains a profoundly important human need throughout one’s lifetime. 

Ashley Montagu wrote a detailed and thoroughly researched book in 1971 called Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin.  The human need for touching has since been corroborated by many researchers.  It is evident that a child’s need to be physically close to her loving parents, especially her mother, is real and highly beneficial. 

It is truly regrettable that as we approach the 21st century, there is a woeful disregard for the mother-infant bond despite the abundant research that has indicated otherwise for several decades.  Forcing a baby to sleep on her own is not conducive to enhancing the mother-infant bond.  Pity the poor babies and mothers whose mutual trust is breached, often unwittingly, by the overwhelming push to get a baby to sleep alone through the night.  It would be less harmful to the baby if her parents lost a little sleep instead.

Myth #6: Parents will never get a good night’s rest with a baby in their bed. 

On the contrary, most co-sleeping families find that everyone sleeps better with the content baby in the same bed.  This is particularly true for the breastfeeding mother since she does not need to leave the bed to nurse her baby.  Awakening from sleep is difficult, but much less cumbersome than actually getting out of bed. 

With breastfeeding, a mother becomes highly attuned to her baby’s movements and can learn to identify her baby’s various needs fairly rapidly.  This enables her to return to sleep that much sooner. 

Babies may wake up often throughout the night and seek the warm physical presence of loving parents.  There may be times, however, when parents may not enjoy sleeping with a baby in their bed.  More often than not, complaints are generated by parents who need to sleep in order to work early the next morning.

The baby may kick or move about during her sleep, which may result in the disruption of her parents’ sleep.  The scenario can be particularly trying when both parents work outside the home, and they both require a good night’s sleep.  The need for parents’ sleep is obvious, but who is heeding the baby’s need to receive comfort and nurturing at nighttime? 

It should be understood that the concept of a good night’s sleep takes on new meaning for parents after the arrival of a newborn.  In reality, many mothers are already accustomed to experiencing interrupted sleep because they might have had nighttime urges to urinate throughout pregnancy.  In a sense, many mothers are prepared to undertake breastfeeding at nighttime.

Simply put, a baby’s need to breastfeed on demand is demanding.  Breastfeeding requires a mother’s willingness to nurse her baby at all hours, regardless of frequency.  Thus, a mother may learn that sleeping for two hours continuously is wonderfully refreshing.  Although interrupted sleep may be difficult, most mothers learn to adapt to frequent awakenings.

Mothers who are committed to nursing their young babies on demand will rest when they can.  They may nap alongside the baby during the day, return to sleep after nighttime nursing sessions, and diminish the demands of social activity outside the home.  More than anything, they will cherish their children’s infancy, which is so brief. 

At the same time, a supportive and helpful spouse may take on more active roles in helping with household chores.  In other words, a nursing mother needs the cooperative efforts of the entire family in order to fulfill her unique role in her baby’s life.  Motherhood may last a lifetime, but its responsibilities are most demanding during a child’s formative years. 

For households in which the father is the sole income provider, there is a simple solution to resolve a father’s inability to sleep if the baby’s movements, nursing sessions, or diaper changes disturb his sleep.  The father can sleep in another bed.  He may sleep better, and his wife will not have to worry about disrupting his sleep.

As radical as this approach may sound, it is actually a practical way to prioritize the mother-infant breastfeeding dyad. This is especially true during the first year of a baby’s life.  On another note, perhaps by recognizing the importance of breastfeeding and co-sleeping, a father can adapt to his baby’s schedule.

Co-sleeping parents comprehend their baby’s dependency and adapt themselves to fulfill their young baby’s needs.  A young baby has needs that must be satisfied by those who love and care for her.  The extremely immature and highly dependent infant needs a tremendous amount of loving care and affection throughout the day and night.  

A baby’s needs are not controlled by the artifice of clocks and schedules.  Co-sleeping parents abide by the unwritten rule that their responsibility is to provide the love, support, and availability that their baby needs to not only survive but to develop and grow into a healthy human being.

Myth #7:  Co-sleeping and the satisfaction of a baby’s needs will spoil the baby.

Many parents worry that if they place their baby’s needs over their own needs or desires, they will spoil their baby.  Relatives, friends, neighbors, and even strangers admonish parents about not co-sleeping for fear of spoiling their baby. 

Parents may even become sheepish about admitting to co-sleeping with their baby, no matter how young or little she is.  Parents who co-sleep and fulfill their baby’s needs are placed into a defensive position about their child-rearing ways.  The implication is that co-sleeping will spoil a child.

Ashley Montagu has written many treatises on the significance of love.  He writes:

 

Genuine love can never harm or inhibit; it can only benefit and

create freedom and order.  Love has a firmness and discipline of                        

its own for which there can be no substitute.  No child can ever  

be spoiled by love, and there are few if any human problems                   

which cannot be best solved by its application. [15]

Satisfying the needs of a young baby certainly does not spoil her but fulfills her as a human being.  Human beings are born highly dependent and need the assistance of a loving being to care for them.  In the majority of cases, that loving person should be the child’s mother. 

It is the absence of a loving caretaker that creates the spoiled temperament, which reveals an inability to be satisfied.  The spoiled temperament would not develop as profoundly if a child is loved and cared for well during her early years.

Some persons would opine that a baby who enjoys co-sleeping with her parents every night must be manipulative.  It is sad that a baby may be characterized as being manipulative when it is obvious that she is completely dependent and unable to fulfill her own needs.  Even the youngest baby is deemed a willful creature by some.  Such a terrible misunderstanding of a baby’s loving nature is the product of longstanding prejudice against young children. 

In contrast, Ashley Montagu has described a baby to be a highly organized being who is capable of learning to love and to be loved.  [16]  A healthy baby will seek fulfillment of her needs in a loving and cooperative manner unless she is taught otherwise by those who care for her.  If parents understand the sensitive nature of their young baby, then they will not cast aspersion upon their baby’s character.  Fulfilling a baby’s needs does not lead to spoiling; it is the neglect of her needs that leads to spoiling.

Myth #8:  Co-sleeping interferes with parental intimacy and marriage stability.

There are many reasons responsible for the collapse of more than half of modern marriages.  The presence of a child in the parental bed, however, cannot possibly be a major factor in all these failed marriages.  If anything, it is probable that the family that makes the efforts to co-sleep is a more cohesive and cooperative family unit.

Successful co-sleeping involves flexibility, perseverance, and sacrifice.  These also lead to a successful marriage.  How could it be that the effort to nurture one’s needy baby during the night can actually harm the parents’ marriage? 

Co-sleeping may be detrimental to marriages if one spouse, usually the husband, believes strongly that co-sleeping is wrong and unnecessary.  This same spouse, though, would believe equally as strongly that he has a right to sleep comfortably, next to his wife. 

It is intriguing that the same man cannot perceive that the snuggling and affection that he deserves is the same as that required by the nursing baby or the older toddler.  The need for human touch and affection transcends age, and one would expect the adult to understand that his young child has an even greater need to be closely and warmly attached to her mother during the night. 

Myth #9:  Co-sleeping discourages a baby’s independence.

The responsibility of providing the loving care that every baby deserves is one that should not be onerous, but cultural values emphasize a baby’s need for independence.  It is almost as if parents view childhood as a burden.

Why else are there so many stories and cartoons that depict parenthood as an endless series of tedious diaper changes and sleepless nights?  Defying this stereotyped view of parenthood, co-sleeping parents choose to make child-rearing a mutually positive and fulfilling experience for both themselves and their baby.

By not choosing to separate their baby from themselves, co-sleeping parents are sparing their baby the grief of abandonment, isolation, and hopelessness.  The baby who is placed in a crib far from her mother’s touch, smell, and breasts is a baby who is, in a sense, in solitary confinement. 

As an aside, it has been noted that solitary confinement, the absence of any human contact, for jailed inmates is considered to be the most barbaric and inhumane punishment.  It must be stressed that the young and needy infant has no means to remonstrate with her parents, other than crying.  Regardless, child behavior experts admonish parents to respond selectively to a baby’s cries.  Even the parents of the tiny newborn receive this callous advice.  Such insensitive advice is cruel, and one wonders why young infants should be treated in such a manner.

Many parents today are aware that the push for a baby’s early independence is one that is fraught with problems.  Often, a baby is left to cry alone in despair as parents try to determine if the baby can comfort herself.  Depriving a young baby or child of loving maternal care exacts a toll on her well-being.  Ashley Montagu writes the following:

                        Unless the child has been firmly grounded in the discipline of love and interdependency, he is damaged in his ability to develop clear and definite judgments concerning people and things, and his ability to form such judgments as an adult is seriously handicapped.  As adults the judgments of such persons tend to be blurred and vague.  Their decisions about the world, people and things tend to be characterized by doubt, suspicion, uncertainty, misgiving and unsureness.  They vacillate, in short, they tend to see the world through a mist of unshed tears.  They are characterized by an inability to enter into the feelings of others because, when they were young, no one cared enough to enter into theirs.[17]

Every baby deserves to experience love and interdependency that will encourage her well-being.  Unfortunately, many parents believe that withholding their love will lead to their baby’s development of discipline and self-control.  The opposite, however, is the result.  It is only through receiving unconditional love and the satisfaction of basic human needs that a baby begins to learn how to love and relate to others. 

If anything, the problem in today’s society is that babies experience far too much unhealthy independence.  It is the kind of independence that makes individuals feel that they are alienated and unrelated to other human beings.  This sad and unhealthy view of life leads such persons to believe that their actions have no consequences, either for themselves or others. 

It is only through the experience of healthy and humane child-rearing practices that such a sick type of independence will not be fostered.  There is a time to emphasize independence in children and that is when they are past their formative years. 

The first three years of life are a special time to explore the wonders of human interdependency, when a young child can freely love her parents and be loved in return.  With that strong foundation of love, a young child can weather a tremendous amount of difficulty later in life. 

Why force a young toddler to experience alienation, lowered self-esteem, and the privation of love when she will inevitably need to face the same later in life?  If a child is given the foundation of unconditional love early in life, her encounters with sorrows and mishaps will be that much easier to endure later in life. 

Myth #10:  Once a family co-sleeps, the child will never leave the parental bed.

There are many families who co-sleep with the proviso that the child leaves the parental bed when she is old enough.  The question is how old is too old? 

Some parents believe that a two-year-old is old enough to sleep alone, whereas others believe that a pre-adolescent should still co-sleep.  Obviously, it is a matter of family preference and circumstances.  The most important issue is whether or not the child feels secure and content about the decision to leave the family bed.

If the child feels secure enough to leave the parental bed, then it is fine to do so.  On the other hand, if the child does not, then there is little reason to force the child to leave the parental bed. 

There are cultures world-wide that practice co-sleeping until the child reaches puberty.  It is a way of life that is not unusual or questioned.  In light of Western mores, most families hesitate to co-sleep with their children beyond the preschool years. 

If the child does not agree to stop co-sleeping, then a gradual weaning from the parental bed may be accomplished by placing another bed or mattress adjacent to the parental bed.  Eventually, most children leave the parental bed voluntarily. 

Those children who do not wish to leave the parental bed often have sound reasons.  A primary reason is that there is family discord, and a child may need to be reassured.  This may occur after an argument or when the family unit is unstable. 

Children whose parents are divorced are affected by the trauma of their parents’ separation.  Co-sleeping with one parent or the other may provide solace to the child.  Unexpected illness may also lead a child to cling to the parental bed. 

There are unlimited reasons children may offer to remain in the family bed.  In the final analysis, there is little reason to deny young children the opportunity to co-sleep.  Co-sleeping provides the comfort, reassurance, and love that many human beings seek at any age.

Practical Measures to Safeguard Co-sleeping

Co-sleeping parents take measures to assure the baby’s safety in their bed.  Some parents lay the mattress or futon directly on the floor, so that there is no danger of the baby rolling off while sleeping. 

If the bed is elevated, a bedrail may be placed on the open side of the bed.  It can be covered with a soft cloth, in case the baby abuts the railing.  If one side of the bed sits adjacent to a wall, parents should make sure that there is no space for the baby to get wedged between the side of the bed and the wall.

The baby should not be placed upon a waterbed or on a mattress that is so soft that there is a chance of suffocation.  The mattress should be firm and clean.  The baby should not sleep on a soft pillow.

Some parents may be concerned about accidentally rolling on to their babies and smothering them.  This concern has been directed primarily toward obese parents, and it is reasonable to assume that a morbidly obese parent may indeed weigh heavily upon a small infant. 

Tine Thevenin points out in her book The Family Bed, however, that mothers are highly attuned to the activity of an infant nearby, and the baby is capable of signaling her distress by crying and using her arms and legs. [18] It is unlikely that a mother would not awaken from her sleep to respond to her child’s distress. 

If a mother has profound difficulty awakening from sleep, or a parent is truly obese, then perhaps placing the baby in a cradle or bassinet nearby would be more advisable than co-sleeping. 

There are some other practical measures parents can take when co-sleeping.  The area of the bed upon which the infant sleeps can be covered with a simple flannel-backed waterproof pad to minimize cleaning of sheets in case the baby spits up or a diaper leaks.  

An infant who is very active and kicks off her covers should be appropriately dressed so that she will not get cold during the night. A baby should not be bundled tightly because she  might wind up face down on the mattress and have difficulty turning her head. 

It is recommended that a baby sleep on her back.  Parents who do not enjoy having their covers kicked off may decide to use separate covers while co-sleeping.  Ultimately, parents decide for themselves whatever works best to make co-sleeping a safe and comfortable experience for all the family members.


Revised April 19, 2006

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[1]  Prescott, James W. 1995. Touch the Future, Fall.
[2]  Montagu, Ashley. 1961. Journal of the American Medical Association 178 (1): 3.
[3]  Ibid, 3.
[4]  Montagu, Ashley.1986. Touching:  The Human Significance of the Skin. 3rd edition. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 155.
[5]  Behrman,Richard E, and Robert M. Kliegman, Ann M. Arvin, editors. 1996. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 15th edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 40. 
[6]  Montagu, Ashley. 1986. Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. 3rd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 74.
[7]  Ibid, 75.
[8]  Gartner,Lawrence M. 1997. ABM News and views:  The Newsletter of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine 3(4): 2. 
[9]  Montagu, Ashley, and Floyd Matson. 1983. The Dehumanization of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, xxii-xxiii.
[10]  Prescott, James W. 1998. Nurturing magazine, Spring. 
[11]  Ibid.
[12]  Ibid.
[13]  Ibid.
[14]  Klaus, Marshall H., and John H. Kennell, Phyllis H. Klaus. Bonding: Building the Foundations of Secure |Attachment and Independence. 1995. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
[15]  Montagu, Ashley. A scientist looks at LOVE. Phi Delta Kappan, 51(9): 467.
[16]  Ibid, 463.
[17]  Montagu, Ashley. 1996. The Elephant Man. 3rd ed. Louisiana: Acadian House Publishing, 98.
[18]  Thevenin, Tine. 1976.The Family Bed:An Age Old Concept in Child Rearing. Minnesota: Self-published .


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