Co-sleeping (AKA "the family bed") refers to the practice of allowing children to sleep with their parents habitually. It is widely practiced in certain ethnic and racial groups in the US; the incidence is lowest in white upper- and middle-class families. Co-sleeping is promoted actively by many ardent advocates of breastfeeding, as well as by some physicians (notably William Sears, M.D., author with his wife of several parenting books), who advocate the "family bed." They claim a variety of unsubstantiated benefits for this practice.

The cultural roots of co-sleeping have more to do with economic necessity than anything else. The observation that most of the world's children sleep with their parents is simply a restatement of the fact that most of the world's children live in cramped quarters. The advantages claimed for co-sleeping are many but mainly center on purported significant emotional benefits to the child. These supposed benefits have not been actually documented. There is no evidence that cultures that practice co-sleeping produce adults who are any better adjusted (or worse) than those cultures who practice separation.

A recent study of co-sleeping by breast feeding infants showed that the co-sleeping infants nursed more frequently at night (surprise) and had more night wakings even when they slept apart from the mother. This reinforces my observations and my conclusion that habitually allowing babies to sleep with the parents is not a good long-term plan for average middle-class families in western industrial societies, as it leads to a host of sleep-related behavior problems later on in infancy and the toddler years. I have found it true in counselling mothers using my video that co-sleeping can lead to what is perceived by the parents as very dependent and demanding behavior from the child at night.

Last but not least, co-sleeping is a risk factor for SIDS, especially when combined with maternal smoking. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has warned about this risk and advises against co-sleeping for children under 2 years of age.

  Personal Opinion, plainly labelled:

I get inquiries (or lectures) from time to time from "family bed" true believers who would like to eat their cake and have it too, as it were. They would like to have the family bed and still have a child who does not bother them in the night. They want the video and counselling to show them how to do this.

Sorry. You can't have the family bed without disturbing your sleep to some degree. Co-sleeping is simply not compatible with long-term sleeping through the night. The whole idea of the family bed is to encourage waking and interaction in the night (which it does quite successfully). If anyone thought that co-sleeping children would actually sleep 10 hours without arousal - as they do when they sleep in their own beds - there would be no point to having them in bed with the parents. Otherwise, why would there be any supposed emotional benefit to having the child sleep ten hours straight in bed with his parents rather than in his own bed? Awakening, getting a snack from Mom (nobody co-sleeps and bottle feeds), and going back to sleep is an integral part of the plan. By the way, the constant reinforcement of night snacking also means that metabolically, the baby can not give up middle of the night nutrition until weaned from the breast and well beyond.

My experience has been that co-sleeping parents eventually get tired of the arrangement; then all heck breaks loose trying to get the child out of the bed. I get the frantic emails. It is a tough situation - I don't wish it on anyone, and I mean to include the little baby that has to undergo getting displaced from the parental bed.

My personal view is that the marriage bed should not be cluttered with children. I find the family bed concept inimical to healthy marital relations and ultimately to family strength. That is just my personal prejudice, to be sure, but one I can reasonably defend with some authority as a married man of normal proclivities with four children.

Additionally, I am extremely uneasy with the concept of co-sleeping once the involved child is of school age. I have read about people advocating co-sleeping into the teens, which certainly seems a setup for sexual abuse or at the very least great uneasiness on the part of the child. I personally would not have wanted as a teenager to have awakened from a vivid sexual dream with an erection sleeping next to my mother. I wonder about the motives and sensitivities of those who choose this extreme form of co-sleeping for their own families or push it for others.

In the end, perhaps we can agree that co-sleeping is a practice extremely well suited in the practical sense to a large segment of the world's population living in traditional societies. Parents in Western industrial cultures who try to pick and choose customs from other cultures to graft onto their own set of customs need to be mindful of what they are doing and especially mindful of the fact that this process doesn't always (or ever) produce the intended consequences.

This picking and choosing of alternate cultural childrearing methods - the smorgasbord approach to parenting - is a reflection of some modern Western parents' (certainly not YOUR, dear reader) dual afflictions of

  • striking insecurity about what it is they are supposed to do as parents and a resultant reliance on the opinions of "experts"* about childrearing practices - no matter how outlandish
    *Hey - myself included
  • somewhat grandiose or narcissistic delusions that they are somehow capable of (or even should be) molding their children into the objects of their (the parents') desires

It is amusing and instructive that these parents choose this particular aspect of the traditional societies' childrearing beliefs. This is the "nice" part, the warm and snuggly part. The same parents however reject out of hand the traditional societies' views on punishment of children (corporal, and lots of it), violence towards women, communication with young children (seen not heard, and the less the better), polygamy, the status of women and children as possessions of the man, and so forth.

So if you want to do the family bed thing, go for it. When it gets too much for you, or your husband threatens to leave (hey, just kidding), you can get the video and we will work it out.

PS: This is of course a no flames topic. No messages responded to on this one, unless to tell me what a wise and insightful person I am, or to correct my spelling or grammar.


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