Cosleeping, also known as “sharing sleep” or having a “family bed,” is a parenting practice that still smacks of taboo in our Western culture. But recent scientific studies are building a much stronger argument for the benefits of sharing sleep with our children.1 Yet even with the scientific support and the changing cultural perception of cosleeping, the subject is typically constrained to parents of infants.
It is still socially taboo to admit that you share sleep with toddlers or older children, but research shows that the taboo is unfounded. Children who cosleep are generally more independent and secure, develop close and lasting bonds to their families, and report more happiness and general life satisfaction than children who sleep alone. There are many reasons that sharing sleep with your children is healthy and beneficial even after they’ve started walking, but below are five of the best reasons.
Five Reasons to Continue Cosleeping Past Infancy
- Cosleeping Can Further Both Trust and Independence
One common argument against cosleeping is that it will create children who are more dependent on parents than children who sleep alone, or that cosleeping children will never learn to sleep alone. “But this is like saying that by putting a baby in diapers, she’ll be in diapers throughout her life, or that by using a stroller or carrying her, she’ll never learn to walk.”2
As a matter of fact, the opposite is actually true: children who shared sleep with their parents are actually more independent than their solo sleeping peers. Recent research has shown:
*Solitary sleepers have actually been found to be more dependent on their parents than co-sleepers.
*Co-sleeping boys ages three and older were shown to have no greater difficulty separating from one or both parents than solitary sleeping boys. (In this study, girls were not observed for this trait.)
*The majority of family bed graduates consider themselves more independent than their peers.3
And why shouldn’t cosleepers be more independent?! They learned from infancy that they could trust their caregivers to quickly respond to their needs, no matter what time of day or night it was. “You are not encouraging dependency when you sleep with your baby. You are responding to a need and teaching your child about trust.”4 “Children, given time to learn to trust those around them, and thus learn that their own feelings and needs are legitimate, will develop a true, enduring sense of independence.”5
- Parents Are the Ultimate Security Blankets
The image of a child sucking his thumb or carrying around a treasured blanket or teddy is a very familiar one in our culture. Search the internet and you’ll find all kinds of advice columns and articles on how to transition children away from these practices. But research has revealed something very interesting: children who cosleep do not need replacement security figures. Children feel more secure as a result of being close to their caregivers.
“When a child routinely goes to sleep in the presence of an adult, or with an adult holding her, it’s extremely rare to find thumb sucking or attachment to security objects.” In a study of children ages one to seven years old who all sucked their thumbs, 96% of them “had been left alone to fall asleep as infants. In stark contrast, there were no thumb suckers among a large group of children who had physical contact with an adult while falling asleep.” In a different study of children between three and five years old, researchers found “that solitary sleepers were far more likely to use a security object than co-sleepers. The researchers concluded that children use security objects as substitutes for nighttime human touch.”6
Our culture emphasizes the desirability of teaching children to self-soothe, and parents are encouraged to introduce security objects to help in this process. But in the dark of the night, why not allow a child to experience the love and comfort of a parent? If we teach our children to rely on things for comfort, what effect will this have on them later in life during times of stress? Shouldn’t we be encouraging them to reach out to people?
- Cosleeping Can Have Positive Effects on Self-Esteem and Family Closeness
As Dr. Sears says, welcoming children into the family bed sends incredible “I care” messages. It says “you are special to us, day and night.”7 A little one welcomed into the family bed receives “countless hours more tender snuggles, and more affection than if she were left alone to sleep. If she wakes up at night, all she has to do is see you or reach out and touch you to feel the world is safe and right.”8
And parents who fall asleep and/or wake up next to their children know how sweet it can be in those sleepy twilight hours. With everyone relaxed and cuddled up, children feel peaceful and ready to share their thoughts and stories, things that you might never hear during the hustle and bustle of daily life. “[Y]ou can get to know a family bed child on a level you might not otherwise. In the words of Thomas Anders, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, and director of the school’s infant and family sleep laboratory: ‘Co-sleeping encourages family closeness.’” These sentiments have been reinforced by research: the “vast majority” of both family bed graduates and their parents report that they are incredibly close to their families.9
- Children Who Cosleep May Be Easier to Get Along With and Better Adjusted Than Their Solo Sleeping Peers
Psychologists in years past theorized that children in family beds were maladjusted, insecure, needy, and that their parents were languishing in bad marriages. Recent research blows the old theories out of the water. Here is a sample of what we’ve learned:
*Children who never slept in their parents’ beds were harder to control, less happy, had more tantrums, handled stress less well, and were more fearful than routinely co-sleeping children.
*Co-sleepers showed a feeling of general satisfaction with life.
*Children who didn’t co-sleep end up getting more professional help with emotional and behavioral problems than co-sleepers.
*Boys who slept in the family bed had increased self-esteem and less guilt and anxiety. Girls had more comfort with physical contact and affection.
*Children who had co-slept felt they weren’t as prone to peer pressure as others their age.10
Psychologists have long agreed “that children who have responsive, sensitive, accessible parents are much more likely to be happier later in life. It should come as no surprise, then, that children whose parents are there for them day and night turn out so well.”11
- Everyone Sleeps Better
As long as cosleeping works for you12 and your child, why change it? If you can get past learning to nurse while sleeping and wild toddler sleeping arrangements,13 continuing to share sleep with your little one may help your whole family sleep better into your child’s preschool years and beyond.
And when I say that everyone sleeps better, I really mean it. Scientific studies have shown that a family who sleeps together actually enters the different stages of sleep together almost simultaneously. Dr. Jay Gordon shared a beautiful illustration about the science behind this concept in his book, Good Nights: The Happy Parent’s Guide to the Family Bed (and a Peaceful Night’s Sleep!)14:
Science is finally beginning to discover what babies have known all along: Babies are designed to sleep with their parents. And parents are designed to sleep with their babies.
At the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, anthropologist James McKenna, Ph.D., watches an intimate dance unfold. It’s a dance in which there’s no leader, no follower, and yet almost seamless choreography.
A mother and father sleep with their baby between them in a large bed in the laboratory’s comfortable bedroom. It’s similar to the way they sleep at home, only with infrared video cameras monitoring their sleep stages, zooming in on every roll of an eyeball, every twitch of muscle, all night long.
All is quiet and still, except for the rapidly moving, closed eyes of the baby, mother, and father. They’re all dreaming at the same time. Moments later they enter a stage of light sleep together: The mother stirs, awakens for just a moment, and drifts back to sleep, moving her head a little to the left, her arm to the right. The baby stirs, moves her head to the left, her arm to the right. Then the father follows with the same pattern. McKenna, director of the lab, smiles broadly and nods his head.
“It’s incredible watching these sequences unfold,” says McKenna, acclaimed as the father of this type of sleep research and the world’s foremost authority on the biological basis of cosleeping. “The synchronization that happens when parents sleep beside their baby is remarkable.”
Similar experiments in England find the same dance with family bedders. But place the baby in another room, and it’s like putting a wall between a pair of ballroom dancers. Everyone reverts to their own rhythms, their sleep cycles coinciding only by chance.15
Need More Reasons to Cosleep?
If you’re on the fence about continuing to share sleep with your little one past infancy, I’d highly suggest reading Dr. Gordon’s Good Nights. It is packed with both research and with testimonials from children who have “graduated” from the family bed. He also offers tips on dealing with criticism from friends and family who do not agree with the practice.
For more resources on cosleeping and nighttime parenting, check out Natural Parents Network’s “Ensure Safe Sleep” resource page. It has links to articles as well as additional book recommendations.
Did you share sleep with your child?
How long did your child stay in the family bed?
- For a review of some of these studies, check out Cosleeping at The Natural Child Project, Co-Sleeping Safety at PhD in Parenting (with more links at the end of the article), and Safe Sleeping with Your Baby at Dr. Sears. For more information on the research results discussed in this post, please see the studies cited in the original sources. ↩
- Gordon, Good Nights: The Happy Parent’s Guide to the Family Bed (and a Peaceful Night’s Sleep!) at 24 ↩
- Good Nights at 25-26 ↩
- Sears, Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep at 35 ↩
- Good Nights at 24. A note to parents who do not share sleep with their little ones: please do not interpret this post to mean that if you do not cosleep, you are not teaching trust or responding to needs. I recognize the fact that cosleeping simply does not work for many babies. ↩
- Good Nights at 19-20 (emphasis added). ↩
- Nighttime Parenting at 52 ↩
- Good Nights at 20-21 ↩
- Good Nights at 21-22 ↩
- Good Nights at 23 ↩
- Good Nights at 23 ↩
- When I say “you,” I mean you in both the singular and the plural, depending on your parenting situation. ↩
- What parent hasn’t woken up to a foot in the back/face/stomach from a sleeping toddler?! ↩
- Good Nights at 3-4 (citations omitted, emphasis added). ↩
- Good Nights at 3-4 ↩