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The Impact of Chronic Co-Sleeping With an Older Child

Co-sleeping with older children impacts everyone's sleep.

Parents who co-sleep with their children report that they have no idea how they got to the point where their beds are consistently occupied by both children and adults. “It sort of crept up on us and here we are,” one mother warily explained when asked how long her 12-year-old son had been climbing into her bed at night. She reported that she never intended to be sleeping next to her son for years when she allowed him to sleep with her and her husband six years ago at a weak moment.

Co-sleeping may have seemed like a good idea at one point, but over time it’s anything but restful and, in fact, it creates additional stress for the entire family. Recent studies indicate that near-epidemic proportions of children are co-sleeping with parents today. According to Parenting's MomConnection, a surprising 45 percent of moms let their 8- to 12-year-olds sleep with them from time to time, and 13 percent permit it every night.

And according to the Canadian Pediatric Society “behavioral insomnia” is a medical diagnosis used to describe 20-30 percent of kids who have trouble falling or staying asleep, and who end up in their parents’ bed at one point during the night. The impact of chronic co-sleeping on a person’s functioning—younger and older—can run the gamut from memory loss, fatigue, low energy, depression, and obesity.

The reasons for parents allowing older children to co-sleep are complex and not completely understood. Anecdotal data indicates that children today have higher levels of anxiety than previous generations. The reasons for this include higher divorce rates, frequent transitions, more over scheduling, greater academic pressures, the influence of being plugged in 24/7.

As a result, children today are less self-reliant. Many preteen children don’t yet know how to be alone at bedtime and they haven’t been forced to learn. Parents band-aid the issue by allowing co-sleeping, assuming that kids will naturally grow out of it and many do not.

Aside from the negative impact on the children such as not being able to attend sleepovers with friends, overnight class trips, and other independent activities, parents are highly impacted by the chronic sleep deprivation that occurs when co-sleeping with an older child. Most obviously are the impact on the marital relationship and the physiological and psychological well-being of adults who haven’t had a night of restful sleep in literally years.

Sleep deprivation adds to the challenge that parents have in understanding how to change the status quo and resume control over nighttime and their bed. Here are some initial steps for parents:

  1. Recognize the severity of the problem and commit to changing it.
  2. Expect resistance and be prepared to use whatever resources are available to stick to and achieve the goal of family members sleeping in their own beds every night. For example, have friends or relatives who are not part of the negative cycle, put the children to bed at night.
  3. Use a behavioral retraining model with the gradual removal of parental comfort and presence at bedtime replaced with parental attention and nurturing before and after bedtime and self-soothing strategies for children to use before and during bedtime.
  4. Discuss the importance of changing the behavior with the children. Emphasize parents’ needs to improve their own sleep and that their bed is for parents only. In addition, discuss the importance of children being able to sleep independently as related to their ability to participate in age-appropriate activities.
  5. Recognize that a child’s anxiety, lower self-esteem and dependency behaviors during the day time are related to their inability to have the confidence to sleep alone at night.
  6. With consistent intervention, most children will learn typical sleep habits and patterns and remain in their beds for the duration of the night.,