Baby Knows Best And You Should Listen
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, anddrifts 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 co-sleeping. "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.
The beauty of this natural nocturnal waltz rests not only in its well-matched moves, but also in its value for the baby: It turns out to be a great life enhancer. Some researchers say it even has the potential to be a lifesaver.
Born Before Their Time
Human infants are extremely immature at birth. Even when born at full term, our babies are frightfully ill-equipped to survive without almost constant care. Most mammals are born with 60 to 90 percent of their brain volume and can be independent of their parents within a year.
But not human infants. Born with a mere 25 percent of their future brain volume, human babies are the most vulnerable, and most slow-developing, of all mammals.1,2
The human setup doesn't sound very sensible, evolution-wise,but nature has its reasons. Back about four million years ago, our ancestors started coming down from the trees and finding that walking on two legs (bipedalism) was of enormous help for a variety of reasons, including foraging, spotting predators, and later, for making and using simple tools.
This was a superb step in the right direction, but it came with a hitch: Bipedalism reduced the size of the birth canal. It wasn't a big deal until about two million years later when we experienced a rapid increase in our brain size (and the size of the head that held it). This made for a tough fit when it came to giving birth.3 Eventually push came to shove, and something had to give. Evolution's compromise: Babies born with brains that were a fraction of the size they would become, saving most neurological development for later.4
As any woman who's had a baby in the last few million years can attest to, childbirth is still a bit of a tight squeeze--even with the adaptation of giving birth to babies whose brains are only 25 percent of their final size. Such neurological immaturity makes human babies extraordinarily dependent on their parents and begs for close parental contact night and day.
In this sense our nonambulatory, nearly helpless babies are born before their time. In effect they need to finish their gestation outside the womb.
Food, Shelter, Clothing ... and Touch
The consequences of this immaturity extend far beyond a baby's need to get adequate nutrition, heat, and diaper changes. In the last several years, researchers from academic institutions around the world have demonstrated another essential ingredient to survival: caring human touch.
When infants in neonatal wards were placed in the completely controlled environment of an incubator, with a minimum of tactile stimulation, their growth rates were precipitously slow. Yet when caretakers gave these babies a few gentle massages a day, the babies rapidly caught up with their expected growth curves--their little bodies "nourished" by the tender touch of another human.5
A new wealth of scientific research is revealing just how essential a parent's physical closeness is to a baby. Being near a parent on a regular basis helps babies regulate many vital functions their fledgling nervous systems have yet to perfect, including heart rate and rhythm, hormone levels, blood pressure, and body temperature.6,7,8 Exactly how some of this information is passed from parent to infant isn't yet clear. In most cases we can witness only the results of this intimate regulation, not the mechanisms behind it. But the results are nothing short of wondrous.
For instance, when a mother holds her baby in skin-to-skin contact, her body temperature fluctuates to keep the baby's temperature normal. If the baby is too cold, the mother's temperature increases. When the baby's temperature is normal, the mother's goes back to normal.9 It's as if the mother is a thermostat,effortlessly keeping her baby in the optimal temperature range. This remarkable synchronization continues as long as the two are in contact.
The implications of such findings are profound, especially for more fragile babies. When premature babies rest skin-to-skin on a parent's chest for short periods throughout the day, their heart rates and temperatures stabilize more quickly, they sleep more deeply, cry less, breathe better, grow faster, and end up going home sooner than babies who don't receive this "touching" prescription.10
A mother's touch can even act as a strong analgesic for newborns. Researchers at the Boston Medical Center found that infants who lie skin-to-skin on their mothers' bellies showed much less pain (crying and grimacing) during routine "heel stick" blood draws than babies left swaddled alone in cribs. Heart rates among the touched babies were also substantially reduced, indicating less distress.11 Since touch can be a powerful pain reliever, babies who have more regular skin-to-skin contact with a parent may have a higher overall comfort level than their less-touched counterparts.
A NOTE FROM DR. JAY: In my practice, I give all vaccines when the babies are in mom's or dad's arms. The child feels so much better, and we don't have to deal with as much fear.
Touch actually rivals mother's milk as a baby's body builder. In animal experiments, it took less than an hour of separation from the mother for the infant's level of growth hormone to start to decrease.12
In the early 1900s, many unfortunate infants perished when raised in institutional environments where all their "standard" needs were met but where they were deprived of touch. What had been thought to be the most beneficial conditions to an infant, such as sterile wards of an orphanage where the baby was rarely handled, proved fatal.13
With a need for contact so deeply ingrained in a baby's makeup, it's no wonder that newborns find it extremely stressful to be separated from their parents at night.
Some researchers have even suggested that the immaturity of human infants may be a factor in some cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). One theory behind SIDS is that some infants fail to rouse themselves from deep sleep during a drop in body temperature or a pause in breathing.14
But when babies share a bed with parents, they're partners in the nocturnal dance documented by McKenna. Stimulated by the parents' movements and sounds, babies tend to spend less time in deep sleep, more time in light sleep.15 Although co-sleeping is not a magic pill against SIDS, it may offer some vulnerable babies protection by causing them to avoid long stretches of deep sleep.16 In addition, family bed babies tend to sleep on their sides and backs, possibly because of ease of breast-feeding. This minimizes the face-down sleeping position, which is a known risk factor for SIDS.17
Philip, a father of three, is among several parents we've heard from who think the family bed may have been a lifesaver. His youngest child experienced many frightening periods of apnea (breathing cessation) throughout the night. "I'll never know if he would have resumed breathing on his own after all of those periods of apnea if we hadn't been beside him in thebed giving him a little nudge," he says. (See "Bedders Safe, Not Sorry," see here, for a dramatic account of another infant whose life may have been saved by co-sleeping.)
It's intriguing that the rate of SIDS is highest in industrial societies where infants sleep separately from their parents. In societies where babies routinely sleep with their parents, the rate of SIDS is considerably lower.18 It would be convenient to argue that the increased SIDS cases in modern societies stem from pollution, parents who smoke, or any of the environmental drawbacks of living in a "developed" culture. But Japan is the fly in that theory's ointment. Japan, where babies routinely sleep with their parents, boasts low SIDS figures more typical of nonindustrialized countries.a
In fact, when people from co-sleeping countries move to the United States, their SIDS rates start out low; but the longer they live in the United States, the higher the rate of SIDS.19 The "Americanization" of their sleep habits, with solitary infant sleep replacing co-sleeping, could be a contributing factor to this tragic increase.
We have only to look to other primates--our closest cousins--to get an idea of what kind of sleeping arrangements have carved their biological impression into our family tree: Without exception, all other higher primates maintain direct, continuous mother-infant contact during sleep.20 Primate researchers have found that disrupting this intimate nighttime contact can quickly prove disastrous.
In one study using rhesus monkeys who had a mechanical "mother surrogate," researchers cooled down the mother's temperature at night, which caused the infant monkeys to move away from her and sleep alone. After two weeks, one infant died. The necropsy found nothing wrong other than dehydration. The veterinarian who performed the necropsy made an off-hand comment that the little monkey had actually died of a "broken heart."22
Fortunately human infants don't suffer such a swift demise when left to sleep alone. But with what we've learned from science in recent years, it's little wonder that our babies absolutely yearn for physical contact with a caring adult throughout the night. And it's not surprising that they would react strongly--with cries and often screams--when a separation is forced on them, leaving them frighteningly devoid of one of their basic survival needs.
It Just Feels Right
Just as babies are born with an innate need and desire to be close to their parents day and night, many parents--particularly mothers--have this same desire. A mother trying to do the "right" thing may place her newborn into a bassinet or crib to sleep and go off to her own bed. Often what she feels is excruciating emptiness.
This is partly because the hormonal changes that take place during labor and immediately after delivery create a strong drive for remaining connected with the baby. Prolactin and oxytocin, both of which continue to be secreted at highlevels during breast-feeding, make mothers yearn for closeness and intimacy, for touching, fondling, holding, protecting. Separation from the baby triggers natural feelings that "something is not right."23 These feelings are also intense in women who don't breast-feed, but the hormonal changes that occur with breast-feeding can deepen them.
Parents who are able to listen to their hearts instead of what they've been brought up to assume about solitary infant sleep usually stumble onto a magnificent discovery: Nothing feels as good, or as right, as sleeping beside their baby or young child. No wonder 98 percent of the family bed parents we interviewed and heard from via our extensive questionnaire said they would have their child sleep in the family bed again in a heartbeat! (See "About Our Questionnaires/Interviews," see here, for more about this research.)
"We both love to be able to open our eyes and see our precious little girl sleeping, and we both love to be able to cuddle with her at any time," says Lora, mother of a sixteen-month-old girl. "I love the reassurance of being able to reach over and touch her and feel her breathing. There is nothing more relaxing and sweet than nursing a baby to sleep and then snuggling with her while she is sleeping."
Working parents also find great joy in the family bed. Sleeping close to their children helps make up for the time they spend away. "Working outside the home is one of the main reasons we fell into co-sleeping," says Suzy, mother of two boys. "This is my time to play catch-up from the day with both my husband and child. This way we're all together, sharing our physical space and events of the day ... . It feels so good."
Cozy and beneficial as the family bed can be, and as much as we recommend it, it's not for everyone.
Parents who can't guarantee a safe and sober bed setup shouldn't have a family bed (see chapter 3 for essential bed-sharing safety tips). Likewise when one or both parents are dead set against the family bed, or have tried it but ended up even more sleep deprived because of an extremely mobile infant. Being an overtired, resentful, and potentially angry parent does an infant no favors.
A man once approached us with a dilemma: He liked the idea of the family bed, but the reality was that when he and his wife tried it a few times, he couldn't stand the slurps and gurgles and movements of their baby. "I love him, but when he's in bed with us, I feel like I'm sleeping with the enemy," he said. "The next day I'm worn out and not very patient with him." For this family, letting the baby sleep in his crib made the most sense. With dad happier and relaxed, life was better for everyone.
Fortunately for babies, most parents who give themselves a chance make excellent family bedders. After all, nothing could be more natural.
One point we want to stress: If a child is treated with love and respect at bedtime, and throughout the night if sheneeds you, she can be content in a crib and grow up to be happy and emotionally healthy. (After all, most of us did-the huge increase in psychoanalysts in the last couple of generations notwithstanding.) In rare cases some babies even seem to prefer sleeping alone. By no means do we condemn caring parents who respect their children's needs at bedtime--wherever they may have chosen to let them sleep--and who give them the comfort and love their children crave, both day and night.
The Late-Night, Self-Serve Buffet (and Other Benefits of Being a Family Bed Baby)
Sleeping with baby was designed by evolution to go hand-in-hand with breast-feeding. If you're breast-feeding your baby, you'll know by now that babies who breast-feed need to do it fairly frequently. That's because human breast milk, while ideally suited to a baby's nutritional needs, is low in fat and protein. 24 Babies who breast-feed get hungry and eat more often than their bottle-fed counterparts.
At night, if your baby sleeps in her own room and needs to eat, she first has to wake up enough to cry to get your attention. Then you have to get out of your warm bed, trudge to the baby's room, nurse her (or bring her to her mom to nurse if you're not designed with the appropriate equipment), get her back to her crib, calm her, go back to your room, and try to fallasleep again before she awakens for more. Parents of bottle-fed babies go through a similar routine. It's usually not as frequent but it involves things like pouring formula and warming bottles, so it's not exactly a walk in the park either.
The family bed provides a delectably simple alternative. Your baby is hungry. She wakes up, but not fully, finds her mom's breast, perhaps with a little help from her barely awake mother if she's too young to move much. She drinks and drifts back to sleep, as does mom. It's essentially a self-serve wet bar, and it's so simple and easy it's almost too good to be true. No wonder so many breast-fed babies--in one study, 80 percent25--end up in the family bed, even if things didn't start that way.
"If I would have had to leave our cozy warm bed to tear to another room, pick up our scared, hungry baby, sit in the cold while he snuggled into me, then return to a now-cold bed, I would probably have been a raving lunatic within days," says Debbie, mother of a two-year-old boy. "As it was, I got plenty of sleep (as did my husband)."
It turns out that if your baby is in bed with you, she'll likely breast-feed more frequently and for longer bouts. This helps with your baby's healthy weight gain and with immune defense against disease, thanks to the antibodies passed on from the mother.26
A bonus for parents: Studies show that breast-feeding moms who co-sleep evaluate their sleep more positively than those whose infants are in other rooms.27 Mothers actually sleep somewhat better, and longer, when their babies are with them.28 It seems this extra breast-feeding does little to disrupt their sleep. "She didn't have to cry," says Sue, about the first offour children (now grown) who ended up in the family bed. "She would just 'say' that she needed to nurse. I would roll over and lift up my nightshirt. She would latch on, and I was able to enjoy her or, if I preferred, go back to sleep."
Says Marie, a new mom who brought her baby to bed within days: "I could just lie on my side for her to latch on, then just go back to sleep ... . I had been prepared to become the walking zombie I had heard all new mothers were, [but] I felt great."
A little good nighttime sleep can go a long way when it comes to your daytime parenting. If you're well rested, chances are it will make being a parent easier. As Kathryn, a mother of an eighteen-month-old family bed boy says, "I sleep better. And I am nicer because of it."
A good night's sleep is one reason so many working parents share a bed with their babies. Mom Megan had to return to work when her first child was just six weeks old. "The only way I got enough sleep was to keep him in bed with me so I could sleep while nursing," she says.
The convenience of the family bed also extends to bottle-fed babies, since the baby barely has to awaken to get your attention. Plus, all those trips to the baby's room, and to late-night TV-land if your child doesn't go back to sleep, go by the wayside. If you have a bottle-warmer by the bed, you're all set. "I just pre-made the bottles and kept them next to the bed. When the baby woke up], I rolled over, got a bottle, fed him, and pretty much went back to sleep," says Michelle, mother of two boys.
A related advantage of the family bed: Studies show co-sleeping babies cry less at night.29 They don't need to wail toget your attention. Often, they don't cry at all. They just fidget. Or gurgle. Or give a request like "Ehhh ehhhh!" Since you're right there, you can respond before the crying sets in.
Family bed dads often find it easy and enjoyable to get in on whatever comforting action might be needed. "It's personally gratifying to help our baby resettle himself," says John, father of an eight-month-old boy. "Although I can't nurse him back to sleep, I can rub his tummy and sing to him. Usually the fear of having to listen to Daddy's off-key warbling is enough to put him right back to sleep."
Other important "perks" of the family bed:
• Bed-sharing parents are able to immediately help if their infant chokes, cries, has trouble breathing because of a cold, or needs to be warmer or cooler. As you've already seen, this can be a lifesaver.
• Children with disabilities can have a great advantage in the family bed: Their parents can help them in a split second if needed. Jake, who has severe and multiple disabilities from a rare chromosome disorder, has very low muscle tone in his upper body. Breathing is always a concern for his parents, as are seizures. But his parents don't lose sleep over potential problems at night, because they're an arm's reach away. "Some of our sense of security comes from knowing he's sleeping safe and sound," says his mother, Penny.
In addition, we know of several cases where a disabled child's physical closeness with co-sleeping parents has led to an emotional closeness that make days and nights much easier than they may have otherwise been. In Jake's case,even though he is four years old and can't sit up on his own or speak because of his disabilities, his mother says, "He is a happy little kid, full of grins and giggles, with mischief in his eyes. I'm sure that some of his sense of emotional security comes from getting plenty of physical reinforcement at night."
• Co-sleeping parents of adopted and foster babies say the children thrive when they sleep next to them. "Co-sleeping can make a difference, even in the short-term. Babies we've had for even a few days or weeks have shown definite improvement," says one of many co-sleeping adoptive and foster parents we know. (She shall remain nameless because case workers don't always take kindly to co-sleeping.)
• Single parents often credit the family bed with their very survival in the early months. "If I had to get up and go to a crying baby several times a night, and then function without a partner the next day and night, and do the same night after night, I'd collapse," says Emily, mother of a four-month-old boy.
• Parents of twins also often credit co-sleeping with saving their sanity. "When they were in their own room, one would wake up and cry and he'd wake his brother up, and they'd both be bawling for me. I had to run into their nursery out of a deep sleep, and I thought I was going to have a heart attack some nights trying to calm them both down," says Sylvia, mother of three-year-old twins. "When we switched to co-sleeping, it was vastly easier. They didn'twake each other (or barely me) when they woke up hungry. Much more peaceful, except for me ending up with four little feet in my ribs at times!"
• Parents of all co-sleeping children are right there for a variety of nonmedical emergencies, from home intrusion to fires and natural disasters. (Not that you'll be able to protect your child forever, but in those early months and years, the added protection of the family bed can be invaluable.)
Paula, who has two girls, tells this alarming story: "Once someone broke into the house while the girls and I were home and my husband at work. We had all just climbed into our bed upstairs when the alarm started to go off. I went downstairs to see why and realized that burglars were in the office downstairs stealing computer equipment. I ran upstairs and called the police and told the girls to get in my closet and wait there until the police came. Luckily, we were all fine and the burglars took what they wanted and left, but I just couldn't imagine how I would have panicked if the girls had been downstairs by themselves in their own rooms, alone and close to the burglars."
After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, many Northern California babies found themselves in a completely new environment: their parents' beds. Robert, of San Francisco, was among the parents who decided that the crib was too far away and that the safest place for his child was between him and his wife.
What started as disaster preparedness ended up as a way of life. Even when the threat of aftershocks was long gone, the couple kept their daughter beside them at night. "We felt connected to our baby and found it convenient," Robertsays. Besides, their daughter seemed to love it as much as they did. Their third child is now enjoying the comforts of the family bed.
The image of a young child sucking her thumb and/or clutching a threadbare security blanket or favorite stuffed animal is ubiquitous in our culture. Many view these activities as a normal, healthy part of development.
"Often, such objects can seem more important to the anxious child than the presence of the mother herself," notes a study from the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.30
But researchers are discovering a fascinating phenomenon about the use of these "transitional" objects: 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.31,32,33 "The transitional object is far from a universal event in the course of normal child development," notes the Case Western study.
In one study, 96 percent of a group of thumb-sucking children between the ages of one and seven years had been left alone to fall asleep as infants. In stark contrast, there were no thumb suckers among a large group of childrenwho had physical contact with an adult while falling asleep.34
Another study, of children three to five years old, showed 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.35
The notion that infants should learn to comfort themselves when possible, with objects replacing parents, is a popular one in our culture. Richard Ferber, M.D., director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep at Children's Hospital in Boston, even goes so far as to advise parents whose children don't already have a security object (which he calls a "special toy") to offer their children some viable candidates for this role. "It will give him a feeling of having a little control over his world because he may have the toy or blanket with him whenever he wants, which he cannot expect from you," he writes in his best-selling sleep-training book, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems.36
But what do children learn from this? "One would wonder whether these child-rearing practices may be teaching children not to rely on other people as a way of handling stress, but to rely on objects for comfort," conclude Abraham Wolf, Ph.D., and Betsy Lozoff, M.D., in a groundbreaking study on transitional objects.37
That would be sad. But it may be true. It certainly is food for thought. Just how much of our feverish consumer culture may have had its start with a baby viewing "things" as paramount, people as unavailable?
They Turn Out Terrific
You're there for your baby when she needs you. You give her 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.
As she grows older, she doesn't have to face the monsters alone. If she has a nightmare, she awakens to the comforting reality of her loving parents. When she can talk, she will-a a great deal, if typical, before falling asleep: Family bed children tend to open up before sleep slips into them. Through their pre-sleep conversations and stories, you 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."38
The results of our extensive questionnaire and interviews of 250 family bed parents confirmed this deep family bond. An overwhelming number of respondents said they feel closer to their children, and that their children feel closer to them, at least in part because of the family bed. (We're not saying the family bed is the guaranteed way to get a happy kid. While the family bed can help temper a more difficult temperament, it won't turn a spirited child into Miss Mellow. And it certainly doesn't cancel out the effects of less positive family dynamics.) The vast majority of the family bed graduates (mostly young adults) we heard from during our researchagreed they have an incredibly close relationship with their parents and siblings (see chapter 8 for some of their reminiscences).
Rachel, twenty-two, is among the preponderance of family bed graduates who feel extraordinarily close to their families. She believes her family's sleeping situation was at the core of their strong and healthy attachment. "I remember feeling like every night was a slumber party for a time," she says. "My older sister was sleeping in a palette next to my parents' bed, my brother and I were sleeping in or near the bed ... . We were all very close, both spatially and emotionally, and we have carried that closeness throughout our lives."
Our culture is entering a new era in its views on co-sleeping, thanks in part to research that knocks flat the myths and ideas of the past decades. For years psychology viewed family bed mothers as emotionally withdrawn from their children--theorizing that they use the family bed to make up for their guilt over their "maternal psychopathology."39,40 Family bed parents were presumed to be in the throes of a bad marriage, and their children were seen as overly needy, perhaps even seeking to displace the parent of the same sex.41 These erroneous ideas, when combined with the already-taboo nature of co-sleeping in our society, didn't do much for the family bed's image.
More recent psychological research, to the contrary, underscores what co-sleeping families have been saying the whole time: It's really OK to have a family bed--in fact, in most cases, it's optimal.
It turns out that young children who co-sleep in a loving environment actually become better adjusted adults than those who sleep alone, without parental contact.42 Some of the findings:
• 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.43
• Co-sleepers showed a feeling of general satisfaction with life.44
• Children who didn't co-sleep end up getting more professional help with emotional and behavioral problems than co-sleepers.45
• 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.46
• Children who had co-slept felt they weren't as prone to peer pressure as others their age.47
It's long been an accepted tenet of psychology that children who have responsive, sensitive, accessible parents are much more likely to be happier later in life.48,49 It should come as no surprise, then, that children whose parents are there for them day and night turn out so well.
A Declaration of Independence
One of the most important findings of this new co-sleeping research may help put an end to the pervasive question of the independence of family bed children. It's an understandable concern. Most of us grew up with the notion that independence is imperative, and the sooner we learn it, the better. The earliest benchmark of this cultural ideal: a baby in a separate crib or bed, in a separate room.
Just a glimpse at the history of the United States should have been enough to put this myth to rest a long time ago. As one study on co-sleeping concludes: "If leaving children to fall asleep alone truly fosters independence, it is perhaps surprising that during historical periods in the U.S. in which 'independence' was most vividly demonstrated, such as the colonial period, or the westward movement, children were not likely to fall asleep alone."50
But since history lessons usually focus on big battles, not little children, this isn't the kind of tidbit we learn in school. The family bed and independence are usually seen as such opposing forces that they rarely even get to occupy space in the same sentence--unless that sentence is something along the lines of: "How on earth can your child learn independence when she's in the family bed?" (Most family bed parents are well acquainted with this question.)
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. 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.
Thomas Lewis, M.D., wrote eloquently about the subject in his acclaimed book, A General Theory of Love: "Too often, Americans think that self-rule can be foisted on someone in the way a traveler thrusts a bag at a bellhop: Compel children to do it alone, and they'll learn how; Do it with them and spawn a tentacled monster that knows only how to cling ... . Independence emerges naturally not from frustrating and discouraging dependence, but from satiating dependence. Children relyheavily on parents, to be sure. And when they are done depending, they move on--to their own beds, houses, and lives."51
As evidence about the benefits of co-sleeping accumulates, it's becoming increasingly common to find positive references like this about the independence of family bed children. This is a refreshing change from the contents of the books that hooked our culture for the last few decades.
Millions of parents have read--and been influenced by--what renowned children's sleep expert Richard Ferber, M.D., wrote about independence in his best-selling book, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. "Although taking your child into bed with you for a night or two may be reasonable if he is ill or upset about something, for the most part this is not a good idea ... . Sleeping alone is an important part of his learning to be able to separate from you without anxiety and to see himself as an independent individual."52
But surprisingly, these words no longer reflect how Dr. Ferber feels. "I wish I hadn't written those sentences," he said in a 1999 article in The New Yorker magazine. "That came out of some of the existing literature. It is a blanket statement that is just not right."53 This was a courageous revelation coming from a man whose very name is synonymous with solitary sleep.
In fact, there's practically no scientific evidence to support any benefit of solitary infant sleep--particularly in matters of independence. Rather, there's a wealth of new research to the contrary:
• Solitary sleepers have actually been found to be more dependent on their parents than co-sleepers.54
• 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.)55
• The majority of family bed graduates consider themselves more independent than their peers.56
Many family bed "graduates" who responded to our questionnaire expounded passionately about the relationship between their independence, their close family bond, and the family bed. A medical student at the University of California, Los Angeles, who slept with her parents until she was four, and had the freedom to come and go whenever she liked after that, has this to say about the nature of her independence:
"I definitely am more independent and self-directed than my peers ... . I think that my ability to strike out on my own was very much influenced by the confidence and security I had in my parents' love ... . I think I'm closer to my parents because I knew that they were always accessible to me and that I was their number one priority, and I think that the family bed was one of the ways they showed me that ... . I knew I always could count on my parents to be there when I needed them and not just between the hours of 8:00 A.M. and 10:00 P.M."
The mother of a ten-year-old British Columbia boy who slept in the family bed until he was five says people used to interrogate her about the issue of independence: "But any farm-ily and friends who know our son don't question us on the family bed making kids dependent anymore. He is just such proof positive that the opposite is true!"
The boy, who goes by the name L.A., agrees with his mom that he's very independent. But at the same time, he has a softspot for his parents. He says he thinks the family bed helped make his family very close. Comparing himself with his peers, L.A. says, "I'm not as whiny, and I love my parents more. (My friend tells his parents to shut up!) And I trust my parents more. I felt safer and happier in the family bed. I felt like I was more loved."
This boy doesn't need to know the science behind why he felt this way or why he turned out as he did. These days he's more interested in hockey and hanging out with his friends. But his advice for new parents reflects everything science has recently discovered about the incredible benefits of co-sleeping: "Let your baby sleep in the bed. You'll thank yourself later," he says. "And your baby will thank you, too."
Honey, Have You Seen the Cavebaby?
(The Deep Roots of Your Urge to Co-Sleep)
Darling, I put our cavebaby in her crib in her little cave nursery, last night, but she's gone. I wonder what could have happened to her?!"
These are not words you'd have heard your ancestors utter.
If they had, you probably wouldn't be here right now.
Back in the days of humankind's infancy, babies slept snuggled with a parent or caretaker (Fred and Wilma Flintstone's nursery for Pebbles notwithstanding). It was a saber-toothed-eat-man world out there, and sleeping close upped the chances of survival of the next generation. "An infant sleeping alone, even among human hunter-gatherers, would be subject to almost certain death by predation," explains renowned anthropologist Melvin Konner.57
In addition to not letting your offspring become dinner (not a big issue today, perhaps), the benefits of co-sleeping were vast enough that it has been the sleeping style of choice for millions of years. Certainly in Western cultures, there's evidence of cradles, boards, and other separate sleeping devices for the last two thousand years or so, but co-sleeping was the norm in our culture all the way up until the last century or two.58 (And it is still the norm in most other cultures. For more on this, see "Around the World in Forty Winks," see here.)
No one knows for certain exactly what caused the downfall of co-sleeping in the West, but it was probably a combination of several factors:
• For centuries, and well into the 1800s, it was common knowledge that some destitute mothers smothered their babies in bed and claimed it was an accident. In many areas, it became illegal to sleep with a baby or young child (see "Under Penalty of Death or Vegetables," see here, for more about this).
• During the 1700s and 1800s, doctors began to believe that co-sleeping wasn't as hygienic as separate sleeping. Ads for twin beds even suggested that breathing someone else's breath was harmful.59
• English nannies became very powerful influences in families in the 1800s, imposing strict eating and sleeping regimens for babies and children.60
• The Industrial Revolution created major changes in families, which shifted from extended families to smaller, nuclear families. Mothers, lacking help from other relatives, felt it essential to foster their babies' independence as early as possible.61
• Physical separation from children, especially during sleep, was deemed to increase a father's ability to display moral authority and to dispense religious training.62
• Nineteenth-century parents were told by doctors that crying was actually good for a baby, which made it easier for parents to let them sleep (and cry) alone.63
The early 1900s marked the end of co-sleeping being fairly acceptable, with parenting manuals and popular magazines dispensing advice against letting a baby sleep with a parent.64,65
While it may seem like solitary infant sleep has beenaround for a long time, the current popularity of making infants sleep alone is the exception--perhaps even just a reversible blip--in a very long history of human sleep.
We hope the time has come for babies to take back the night.
GOOD NIGHTS. Copyright © 2002 by Jay Gordon, M.D., and Maria Goodavage. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.