Children in Parents' Bed: A Good Idea?

Contradictory parenting advice can creates anxiety

Posted Mar 19, 2013

Pick-up your baby when it cries; let your baby cry itself out. Feed your baby whenever it’s hungry; feed your baby on a schedule. Let your baby choose its own food; feed the baby only homemade food.

The list of contradictory parental advice goes on. Latest to enter the fray is sleeping with your infant in the same room. The conventional wisdom is put your baby in another room. The latest is that sleeping in the same room with you is good for your baby.

Evidence for the latest advice comes from the field of neurobiology. We know a great deal about the early development of the brain. Everyone agrees that what happens in early childhood plays a large role in life as an adult.

Those advocating a return to co-sleeping look at cortisol, a steroid hormone, an important component in fetal development. Cortisol is necessary for lung development, for example. Cortisol, like all steroids, can be harmful in too large a dose. Large doses of the steroid are released under stress and can lead to depression, PTSD, diabetes, obesity and low bone density and other illnesses.

Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, is a leading figure in the field of moral development, is concerned about the effects excess stress in infants leads to long-term developments that undermine ethical behavior. She contends that her studies show that infants experience stress when separated from parents, thereby flooding the brain with cortisol. Increased cortisol adversely effects the development of conscience, empathy, self-regulation and impulse control. “The way we raise our children today in this country is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well being and a moral sense,” Narvaez says.

Narvaez also claims that today’s practices of letting children cry it out, bottle feeding and separating them away from parents’ beds accounts for ADD/ADHD, depression and a dramatic drop in the last 30 years in empathy amongst college students. Co-sleeping, she adds, reduces the incidence of SIDS by reducing stress in the infant and, thereby, regulating cortisol to its proper, low levels.

This is a lot of freight to load onto parental behavior. How accurate is this assessment. There is no question that stress induces high levels of cortisol, However, a host of questions are raised. Does stress in infants cause long-term harmful effects? How do we eliminate confounding factors in later development? How much stress is harmful? Is there a difference between acute and chronic stress?

The relationship between stress and predicted outcomes is a complicated matter. An infant experiences stress when it is frustrated, but it also experiences stress when those around it are stressed themselves. What effects does a parent’s stress have on an infant’s brain development? Which is experience as the greater stress: sleeping alone or having a parent who is sleep deprived?

Where does this leave today’s parent? Perhaps a little more stressful than needs be. Breastfeeding is good, but not under all circumstances. Taking great care in what food you give you child is prudent, but being too concerned can also create unnecessary anxiety. Sleeping with your child won’t hurt either you or your infant, but you may find it uncomfortable and intrusive. Forming close attachments is beneficial, but too close a bonding may lead to raising children who never question authority, a necessary element for critical thinking.

The best advice for parents is to find the middle ground where you are most comfortable. You only have so much control over what kind of person your child will become. The main thing you can do for them is to be the person yourself that you wish for them to be. They learn more from you by what they see of your character than from the specifics of what you do.

As in so many things in life, the Golden Mean is often correct way.