Should Your Family Share a Bed?

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In many cultures, co-sleeping is the norm. Credit: jupiterimages

Having children means lots of sleepless nights, but for exhausted mothers and fathers, the family bed -- where all members of a family share a single sleeping space -- may provide escape from parental exhaustion.

And, for working parents, the family bed may provide a chance to spend extra time bonding with the children.

Proponents of the family bed point out that in most cultures around the world, cosleeping is the norm. They say studies show the benefits are myriad: Babies who sleep with their mothers will nurse more, have better immune systems from the increased breastfeeding, are more secure and develop stronger self-esteems. Bed sharing also helps the baby regulate his heart rate and temperature, and facilitates mother-child bonding, studies show.

But it's not without controversy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against sleeping with an infant in your bed because of the danger of accidental suffocation or death. And while the AAP doesn't discount the benefits of sleeping in proximity to a child, it holds that babies reap similar benefits if they are in a bassinet near the parents' bed, or are provided with other nearby but separate sleeping arrangements.

The statistics certainly indicate that cosleeping can be dangerous and even deadly, but family bed advocates say the numbers paint an inaccurate picture because they include babies who suffocated when a parent accidentally fell asleep in an easy chair or on a couch with them. These proponents counter that cosleeping is safe as long as parents are thoughtful and deliberate about a baby's sleeping environment, take care to remove hazardous objects such as thick duvets and fluffy pillows, and never sleep with a baby when impaired by alcohol or medication.

Once a child passes infancy, the family bed raises other issues. Tova Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, says that while co-sleeping arrangements may make sense in other, more collectivist cultures, in our highly individualistic society co-sleeping may send a mixed message.

"As children get older in our culture, toddlers begin to separate," she says. "It can get confusing for a child sleeping with a parent at a time when they're supposed to be separating."

Claire Jones, a sleep specialist at parent coaching service Urban Nurture, echoes that.

"It helps them to be more independent when they are sleeping in their own beds," she says. "They're going to be going to school, they're going to be napping in the day, they need from an early age to be able to soothe themselves."

But Susan Goodwyn, emeritus professor of psychology and child development at Cal State University, Stanislaus, sees it differently. While we certainly are living in an individualistic culture, children who sleep with their parents feel more secure, she counters.

"When they're confident, they're able to wander out and learn more," she says. In her experience, children eventually decide for themselves when they feel ready to sleep in their own beds.

Related: Cosleeping: Is It Right for You?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.