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Co-sleeping Neither Helps Nor Hurts Child Development

Considering co-sleeping?

This probably won’t put differing opinions to rest on the issue of the “family bed,” but it is good news for parents who choose to co-sleep with their children: The results of a new study indicate that bed-sharing does not negatively affect cognitive or behavioral development in young children.

Researchers at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine looked at the sleep habits of 944 low-income families over a period of several years. The families they included represented a diverse sample of racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as geographic location. In a survey, parents were asked to describe their family’s sleep habits—particularly regarding co-sleeping—when their children were ages 1, 2, and 3 years. At age 5, researchers assessed the children’s cognitive and behavioral development, including early math and literacy skills, social skills, and levels of hyperactivity. They found that co-sleeping during the toddler years does not negatively affect development by the age of 5. It’s important to note that researchers also found no developmental benefit to children from co-sleeping.

The decision to sleep together as a family is a highly personal and individual one that can be influenced by several factors, including:

  • Convenience—Parents may feel it’s simply easier to sleep together, particularly when breast feeding
  • Bonding—Parents may find co-sleeping a way to connect emotionally with their children, and bond as a family
  • Living circumstances—Space constraints in a home and other environmental circumstances may make co-sleeping a necessity
  • Cultural norms—In some cultures co-sleeping is very common

Of course, I am most interested in another factor: how does co-sleeping affect sleep for both parents and children?

The goal of any family sleep arrangement is a good night of sleep for each member of the family, reflective of their individual need for sleep. Sleep is always important, but it is perhaps never more at a premium than for families with young children. Parents of newborns and toddlers are often chronically sleep deprived. Children are in engaged in the important developmental process of actually learning how to sleep, developing sleep habits that can influence the quality and quantity of their sleep—and their health—for years to come. Meeting all of these needs—and ensuring each family member a full night of rest, from a single bed? It can be a challenge, to say the least.

That said, I do think there are circumstances when co-sleeping can help parents in the short term. If your child wakes up and needs to be put back to bed repeatedly throughout the night, or wakes extremely early in the morning, it may make sense to take him into bed with you—provided you all can then fall asleep together. Over time, you can work with your child to help them extend their stay in their own bed for the entire night. Rewards can really help here—maybe it’s a special trip to the aquarium, or an extra book from the bookstore or library, as a reward for staying in bed longer during the week. In this case, short-term co-sleeping gets everyone the immediate rest they need, but doesn’t stand in the way of your child developing his own, independent, healthy sleep habits.

If you are thinking about creating a family bed, keep these tips in mind:

  • Not before one. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against co-sleeping with children under the age of 1 because of a risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.
  • Parents on the same page. It’s important that both adult partners are fully in agreement with the decision to share your bed with their child.
  • Routine matters. Creating a soothing, relaxing before-bed routine is critical to helping your child develop strong sleep habits. It’s also important for adults. A family bed shouldn’t mean a routine-less bedtime. Consistency is key to helping your children—and yourselves—get the sleep you need.
  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol consumption on your part increases the risk of injuries to your child during the night. If you’ve been drinking, you should not share a bed with your child.
  • Don’t sacrifice sex. One of the risks of co-sleeping for the adults is that it can wreak havoc on your sex life. Be sure to continue to make intimacy with your mate a priority.
  • Stay attentive to sleep issues. If anyone begins having difficulty sleeping—parent or child—it may be time to re-think the co-sleeping arrangement.

Every family is different, and the choice to co-sleep is a highly personal one. Just make sure your bedtime arrangements allow every member of the family to get the nightly sleep they need.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

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