Many experts say co-sleeping is a no-no, but many still allow their children to crawl into bed with them at night.
Doctors generally discourage co-sleeping, because of its link to sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS. However, Susan Stewart, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University, found that many parents still co-sleep with their children, and it is a phenomenon that extends well beyond the infant and toddler years.
In her new book, “Co-Sleeping: Parents, Children, and Musical Beds,” Stewart explores the reasons why parents allow their children to sleep with them instead of in their own beds. She found a lot of activity takes place at night in a variety of scenarios. In some families, children started out in their own bed and then went into their parents’ bed in the middle of the night. This sometimes resulted in one parent being “squished out,” forcing them to move to the couch or the child’s bed.
In other households, children might be allowed to sleep on a mattress or in a sleeping bag on the floor of their parents’ bedroom. Stewart says the prohibition against co-sleeping is so strong that in one family the mother, wanting to be close to her child, slept on a mattress next to the child’s crib.
One of the reasons Stewart wanted to study this issue is because most research on co-sleeping comes from the medical field and is related to SIDS. Stewart is one of the first researchers to take a broader approach and include parents who slept with infants as well as children up to age 13. In the book, she defines co-sleeping as: “One or both parents sometimes or regularly sleeping with their children in the same bed or room at night or part of the night.”
Stewart interviewed 51 parents who co-sleep and found many would prefer not to sleep with their children. The shame and stigma associated with co-sleeping is so great that about half of the parents denied or avoided discussing it with family or their pediatrician. However, some of parents said they slept better and had fewer disruptions throughout the night when everyone slept in one room or bed, rather than spending the night playing musical beds.
“Parents are exhausted, they’re stressed and honestly, it’s often easier to co-sleep,” Stewart said. “There’s no one size fits all, and in my view, there is no right or wrong.”
While co-sleeping is sometimes frowned upon in the U.S., it is perfectly normal in other cultures. Stewart says it’s more acceptable in Scandinavian, Asian and South American countries, where rates of SIDS are far lower than in the U.S. The decision to co-sleep is sometimes related to economics, because there are not enough rooms or beds in the home.
Putting an end to co-sleeping often starts with a plan, but executing it can be a challenge. Stewart says parents gave several examples of setting timeframes, such as telling their children they would have to sleep in their own bed once school starts. Despite efforts by parents to put an end to co-sleeping, for many families it ended naturally without a plan.