Articles Spiritual Parenting

Co-Sleeping versus Sleep Training

My question to parents who sleep train and vigorously schedule their babies is this: What kind of human being do you wish to raise? Do you wish to raise a person who listens to and hears the needs of others, who enjoys and responds timeously to social interaction and intimacy? Or do you wish to raise a person who is shut off from his own feelings and the feelings of others, who had to stand alone from an early age and learns to mistrust that other humans will meet his needs and be there for him? There are some parents who may prefer to raise a child who becomes distant and reserved, who bonds to technology and material possessions rather than human beings. For myself, I wanted to raise sons who feel themselves and care to understand the feelings of others, especially the women they love. I wanted to raise sons who care about the earth, the environment, animals as well as human beings. And although it is increasingly difficult to be sensitive and feeling in this world, it is increasingly important that we pay attention to these very aspects of ourselves or we will lose our position and our planetary home as we know it. I include a wonderful article on bed-sharing by Amanda Perkins, a Mama Bamba Way Facilitator whose home birth I was privileged to attend.

Bed-sharing by Amanda Perkins

Do you share a bed with your partner? Most couples do and whilst making love may be the most obvious benefit most would agree that warmth, security and intimacy play their part. It is easier to kiss, cuddle, chat, snuggle and feel close to your partner than if you slept in separate rooms. Are warmth, security, kisses and cuddles things you would like your baby to experience less of or more of? Why is it that we love, care for and nurture our babies throughout the day but expect them to take care of themselves at night?

A few years ago I had friends whose son slept in their bedroom at age seven. Whilst I could imagine having my baby in a cot by my bed in the very early days I thought it ridiculous to continue the practice into childhood. I felt it would be fostering an unnecessary dependence although I had to acknowledge their son was a very confident and secure little boy.

Then I became pregnant and my parents wanted to buy a cot. Suddenly it was the idea of this tiny brand new person leaving the comfort and safety of my womb to sleep alone which felt ridiculous. Instinctively I wanted to bed-share with my baby. Almost nobody I knew supported the idea. I was told I would never get any sleep, that the practice was unsafe, that my baby would be more likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and that to molly-coddle my child in this way would make her over dependent. As a single woman friends advised me to scrap the plan – I couldn’t possibly expect a new partner to sleep with my baby – I would never have sex again.

I decided to do some research. Firstly I discovered that although within our culture bed-sharing is seen as a suspect practice, ninety per cent of parents across the world co-sleep with their infants until they are weaned and many way beyond that point. Cots are a relatively new phenomenon – they have been around for the past 200 years or so – basically since certain societies decided that self-sufficiency and independence were a mark of success. The irony being that studies show co-sleepers perform better in school, have higher self esteem and are more, not less independent than their solo-sleeping peers. Margot Sunderland, Director of Education for Child Mental Health in London recently reviewed over 800 scientific studies on co-sleeping from around the world. She concluded that parents wanting their children to enjoy optimum mental health should co-sleep until they are at least five. She maintains it is an investment in your child which will continue to reap benefits throughout their life.

A survey by Lewis and Janda of adult males of college age found that those who had co-slept until at least the age of five had significantly higher self esteem, experienced less anxiety, less guilt and reported a greater frequency of sex. They concluded that it was the attitude of parental acceptance which promoted confidence, esteem and ease with intimacy.

Tiny babies are not supposed to sleep through the night – they need food and they need adult reassurance to make them feel secure. Neurological studies show that infants separated from their parents display similar brain activity to infants in physical pain. Methods such as ‘controlled crying’ which have been made so popular by various parenting gurus, espouse to teach an infant to go to sleep on their own and sleep through from an early age. What they actually teach an infant is that their attempts to be nurtured are futile. Being left to cry increases the flow of the stress hormone cortisol. Frequent raised cortisol levels result in physical changes to the brain. These changes cause adults to be more prone to the effects of stress with higher incidence of mental illness, depression, aggression and emotional detachment.

The safety aspect was of great concern to me. However I discovered that bed-sharing is statistically safer than solo sleeping with regard to SIDS or ‘cot death’. In Japan bed-sharing generally lasts throughout childhood in an arrangement termed ‘the river’ – the child is the river and the parents are the banks either side. Japan has the lowest incidence of SIDS in the world. In China where bed-sharing is the cultural norm SIDS is so rare they don’t even have a name for it.

Research studies have identified three main areas of risk with bed-sharing. Where one or both parents are under the influence of alcohol or drugs there have been cases of suffocation by overlaying. Accidents have occurred when the sides of the bed have not been adequately padded and infants have become trapped. The third unsafe practice is sofa sleeping, again because an infant can become trapped at the back of the sofa.

Next there was the question of sleep deprivation. Would my child ever learn to sleep through the night if she was in bed with me tossing and turning next to her? Would I fully relax and sleep soundly with her lying next to me? Every scientific study concludes that parents who bed-share sleep both longer and better. Since at the first cue a parent responds, babies will feed and / or be comforted back to sleep far quicker. The co-sleeping parent has not had to get out of bed, negotiate furniture, put on a light, get chilly, sooth a fully awake child back to sleep and then try returning to sleep themselves. Mothers and babies tend to lie face to face throughout the night and respond to one another even in sleep. Fathers who co-sleep often perceive that their infant has slept through the night since a few months old as mothers react at their baby’s first stirring.

Babies also experience better quality sleep. Infants should spend around half their sleep time in REM sleep – the sleep which makes us feel truly rested. Solo sleepers spend considerably less time in the REM sleep than co-sleepers. Instead they are either in a very light level one sleep as they do not feel secure so are on ‘high alert’. They then sink into a deep level three sleep which is when sleep apnoea (breath cessation) more commonly occurs. Researchers believe this could be one reason solo sleepers are more susceptible to SIDS.

Co-sleepers also breastfeed twice as often in the night although mothers have little or no recollection of these interactions. Since breast feeding works on supply and demand this has the effect that co-sleeping mothers are often able to breast feed for longer, with all the bonding and immunological health benefits that entails.

So what of sex? It seems this is an area our scientific researchers haven’t dared to tread so I asked around. The consensus seems to be carry on regardless. Couples tend to feel OK about their infant waking up and witnessing them making love. They simply nurse them back to sleep with endorphin-rich milk. By the age of four most children will sleep soundly through an earthquake so making the earth move is not a problem. A few couples preferred not to make love in the presence of their sleeping child and so have ‘date nights’ when their nanny or granny sleeps with the child and many co-sleeping couples admit to developing a taste for quickies during the day. A father of five co-sleepers had this advice – “You get the largest box of smarties they sell, take the kids to the bottom of the garden, throw the contents in the air then bolt for the bedroom!” The same guy routinely tells parents who are about to spend big bucks decorating the nursery “no man, the baby needs to be in bed with you, use some cash to buy yourselves a big, comfy family bed and the rest to turn the nursery into a love nest!”

Another tip – I did allow my parents to buy me that cot. I chose a sleigh cot, took one side out, built the mattress up to the same height as the bed with foam and bumped it right up to the bed. I must admit most nights my daughter and I spoon and seventeen teddies, two bunnies and a pussycat sleep there. However on nights when a little more room is required the teddies get thrown out and my daughter sleeps there with me in easy reach. When I got together with my partner I discovered he was a big fan of co-sleeping and still co-sleeps with his five year old son. Our first night of passion saw his son on a futon to the right and my daughter in the cot to the left. Predictably enough she woke in the middle of proceedings and as I nursed her back to sleep he caressed my back and whispered ‘Pretty cool huh? Our own little cheerleader demanding Scooby-snacks from the sidelines!”

People often ask me when will I make her sleep alone. I trust I won’t have to ‘make her’ – she will reach a stage where she wants to make the move to her own room. Anecdotally most co-sleeping children decide somewhere between age five and seven that it is time to leave the parental bedroom in favour of their own space. Also I am asked what if I have more children? Again I can only rely on anecdotes for guidance – the new baby will come into bed and if the bed feels too crowded I will gradually transfer my older child to a futon next to our bed.

For me bed-sharing has been a delight. Having chosen to do it consciously rather than doing it by default because my baby doesn’t sleep I have been able to anticipate and solve the issues that have arisen. When work means we have spent the day apart I’ve felt that sharing night-times has kept our bond strong. Starting my day chatting, cuddling, tickling and giggling with the person I love most and ending my day snuggling close to her sweet smelling body, knowing she is safe, warm and secure has been nothing short of bliss.

3 thoughts on “Co-Sleeping versus Sleep Training”

  1. Thank You Gen. Our three boys also slept in the bed with us until they moved into a bed where they all slept with each other. I love your description of how they were able to have loving moments before the busy hours.

  2. Fantastic article. Thank you. We have 4 sons and have always co-slept (and still do with 2 of them). My sons are 11, 7, 4 and almost 2. The eldest moved when he was about 7 1/2 (so for a brief time there were 3 kids in the family bed – which was a king with two single beds next to it), and then our next son when he was almost 6. I agree with the fact that there are so many benefits and people always comment on the fact that my kids are so loving and protective of one another. This just makes me think of the waking moments when I have rolled over to see little brothers stroking a baby’s face or cuddling up to them, or even just talking to one another. It is precious.
    I personally have never make love with the boys in the room, but when the kids are all in one room…then the whole house is available!

    1. Ours is almost 12 months and we co-slept from the start. Baby has slept on my chest since Marianne caught her at home last year. My husband says it’s so lovely laying his head next to hers at night and falling asleep that way.
      Would also never make love with her in the room, I lul her to sleep in her double bed, that she only sleeps in during the day (still on my chest). I lay her down, we have our bed to ourselves for the duration of the sleep before she wakes for her first night feed. I have considered sleep training, but it just feels so mean. I don’t want our little one crying and feeling abandoned. Some say “they’ll get over it”, “they’ll be fine”, “they won’t die”. I beg to differ that anyone who feels abandoned is NOT fine on the long run.

What do you think?