The Family Bed: a psychological and physiological understanding

The Family Bed: a psychological and physiological understanding

“If your baby sleeps with you will she might not learn how to sleep independently.”

“Are you afraid that your kid will need you too much if you wear your baby during the day and sleep with her at night?”

“You don’t want to make your kid co-dependent. You should help them learn to sleep on their own.”

“You’re building bad habits by letting your baby sleep in the same room as you and frequently feed at night.”

“Some pediatricians believe it’s normal for infants to cry 2 hours a day.”

These are just some of the thoughts I’ve had around infancy and sleep…

You probably thought those were judgments from other people. Nope! They came from my brain! Hey!

This quote from the U.S Department of Labor, Children’s Bureau in 1926 might give you some perspective on why Western culture has a hard time understanding and valuing the needs of an infant:

“…that crying will get him what he wants, sufficient to make a spoiled, fussy baby, and a household tyrant whose continual demands make a slave of the mother”.

Is it any wonder I (or maybe many of you) feel like we can easily “overhelp” an infant when we’ve been socialized for centuries to believe the above?

I began to realize the thoughts I had weren’t lining up with what I was observing in my child, which is ultimately what started me on this sleep journey.

My baby seemed happier, calmer and slept better/longer when she was near me. And I enjoyed being with her more (I see you, oxytocin! You sly positive feedback loop, you!). Plus, I love the flexibility it allows me both day and night.

I’ve come to see we are a culture that understands infant sleep through the lens of social values instead of infant and parental biology.

Instinctive Parenting

Majority of research around co-sleeping, baby wearing, breastfeeding, infant biology and well-being highlights the importance of keeping your infant close until they become more mobile when physical contact naturally lessens.

Take for example crying. Your baby might not be in actual danger now, but their prehistoric brain sees this as a survival-promoting behavior that is engrained in his/her genetic makeup. Infants today want just as much closeness as they did in Africa 2 million years ago when crying and an immediate response by the mother was a matter of life or death.

Even the composition of human breastmilk supports the idea that infants are meant to feed almost continuously and be kept close.

Mammals have been divided into two separate groups based on whether they are “nested” or “carried”. This division is made based on the contents of their breastmilk and spacing of their feeds.

Rabbits, for example, feed their young only 1-2x/day, have higher protein and fat content in their milk and leave their babies in a nest during the day.

Higher primates feed their young almost continuously, have lower protein and fat in their milk and carry their young day and night.

Human milk has a similar make up as higher primates, meaning infants feed more frequently day/night and benefit from being carried.

Every mother-infant dyad is different, and calls for differing approaches, but in general, infants need close contact with a caregiver for their physical survival.

What I’m describing here is slightly different than attachment parenting, in that attachment parenting primary focuses on the psychological well-being of a child. Instead the research I’ve reviewed looks at both the psychological and physiological benefits of close contact with a caregiver through the first year of life.

The benefits of co-sleeping are so profound that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently changed their guidelines: infants should co-sleep (i.e, baby sleeps in same room as parents, but not same sleeping surface) for at least 6 months, but preferably for a year.

Take a closer look at the research below. And send me any questions you might have!

*Please do not take this as a direct recommendation for how to sleep with your baby. This is to present the research so you can think through what an informed choice looks like when it comes to infant sleep.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What’s the difference between co-sleeping and bed sharing?

    Co-sleeping is when your baby sleeps in the same room as you, but on a separate sleeping surface.

    Bed sharing is when a baby sleeps on the same sleep surface as the parents.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends co-sleeping, but not bed sharing. Unfortunately the AAP doesn’t provide recommendations for how to bed share safely. 24% of parents disclosed they bed share with their baby, but not all of them received proper education on how to bed share safely. Around 85% of those who bed share did not intend to do so.

    Teaching parents how to bedshare safely can prevent unintended injuries and SIDS. I don’t find it helpful to tell parents, “just don’t bedshare”, without taking into account the unique environment and preferences of each family.

    Helping parents make an informed decision by giving them information on how to create a safe sleep environment respects their autonomy and right to a personalized choice.

  2. What if I want to bed share. Is this dangerous for my baby?

    I’m hoping the American Academy of Pediatrics will change their stance on bed sharing and instead offer stratified risk counseling. Some families should not bed share because it is unsafe and can increase their baby’s risk of SIDS. Examples for when bedsharing should be avoided are if the baby was born prematurely, there is a smoker in the house, or if the mother bottle or formula feeds.

    For others bedsharing can be safe and even beneficial if families follow guidelines on how to create a safe sleep environment.

    Benefits of bedsharing: improves breastfeeding rates and longevity, parental sleep and helps regulate infants immature nervous, respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

    Bedsharing is common (anywhere from 21%-65%) in England, Sweden, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Scotland, Austria. In other countries where bedsharing isn’t as common, like the US, Norway, or Holland, the incidence is rising due to increased rates of breastfeeding. It’s very difficult to not bedshare if you breastfeed.

  3. How do I know if it’s safe for my baby to sleep in my bed?

    -Baby was born full term (greater than 37 weeks)

    -Exclusively breastfeed (day and night)

    -No use of alcohol or drugs

    -Safe sleep surface (no cords/strings, no heavy comforter or pillows, and a firm mattress)

    -No smoking

    -Baby sleeps on his/her back

    -Don’t swaddle your baby. Dress your baby in light clothing

    -Baby sleeps with parents and both parents know baby is in the bed with them; no other children in the bed

    *For more information behind bedsharing and its protection against SIDS go here

    *To learn more about how to bed share safely go here

  4. If I co-sleep I worry my child will never learn how to sleep on their own. Will this make them more dependent on me?

    If your overall goal is to get a full nights sleep by having a child who sleeps through the night, then yes, training your baby or child to sleep alone will eventually get you where you want to go. Most sleep training research shows by age 6 children go to bed alone and sleep through the night regardless of whether or not they had been sleep trained. Children will get there… in time.

    But, parents who had their children sleep alone from an early age were able to get their kids to sleep alone sooner. One study found solitary sleepers were able to go to bed alone, sleep through the night alone and weaned earlier than co-sleepers.

    If your goal is to help your child build independence when developmentally appropriate, increase their confidence and have higher self-esteem, co-sleeping is one way to get there.

    -A number of studies found early co-sleepers to be more self-reliant, sociable, happier, and had less tantrums when compared to solitary sleepers.

    -The largest study to date, conducted on five different ethnic groups from both Chicago and New York involving over 1,400 subjects found far more positive adult outcomes for individuals who coslept as a child, among almost all ethnic groups than negative findings. They found that co-sleepers exhibited a feeling of satisfaction with life. (Heron, P. (1994). Non-reactive co-sleeping and child behavior: Getting a good night’s sleep all) every night. Master’s thesis, Department of Psychology, University of Bristol).

    -Another study found that infants and children who co-slept were more likely to solve problems autonomously and had greater self-sufficiency. (Mosenkis, J. (1998). The effects of childhood co-sleeping on later life development. Master’s thesis, Department of Cultural Psychology, University of Chicago.)

    -Cosleeping appears to promote confidence, self-esteem, and intimacy, possibly by reflecting an attitude of parental acceptance. If co-sleeping after a year of life is not something you or your partner is interested in, I do think there are other ways of demonstrating parental acceptance so you can help your child feel confident and build self-sufficiency.

  5. When should I transfer my baby or child to their own room?

    You should keep your infant in your room for the first 6-12 months, but after that there’s no direct guidelines. Understanding infant and parental biology and your own personal preferences/needs can guide your decision on when to move your child.

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