Q. The grandparents in our family are uncomfortable with the sleeping arrangements chosen by my 42-year-old stepdaughter.
When her first son was born, she moved out of the bedroom she shared with her husband and into a spare bedroom so she and the baby could co-sleep together. The parents still had their “private times,” she said, so she co-slept with her second son, too, even moving him from his bed to her bed when he was sound asleep. And she still sleeps with her sons, now 9 and 5 years old, even though they have their own beds and their own bedrooms and have no trouble sleeping alone when they spend the night with their grandparents or their friends.
We are increasingly concerned about the boys as they get older. Will this practice hurt them in the long run? Her father (my husband) gently asked his daughter, “What would people have thought if you and I had shared a bed when you were 9 years old?” She got furious and defensive and said, “I practice co-sleeping.”
Complicating the matter even further, the parents have gotten into serious debt and the husband — an alcoholic — has moved out. Although the marriage is ending, the co-sleeping has not. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.
A. Your question has walked the Family Almanac into yet another minefield.
Most parents (and most grandparents) think co-sleeping is either very good or very bad, depending on the research they read, but unfortunately the research is quite mixed and often conflicting.
Some critics of co-sleeping — where parents and children sleep in the same bed or the same room — and of bed-sharing — where they sleep in the same bed — think parents might inadvertently suffocate their baby or cause them to die of SIDS. Others insist that children who sleep in their own beds are more independent.
The fans, led by James J. McKenna of Notre Dame — the guru of infant sleep — and William Sears, the avuncular pediatrician who promotes attachment parenting so well, may have better research, however. They both say that mothers and babies bond better and have fewer incidents of SIDS, and according to Dr. Sears, they face each other as they sleep so the mother instinctively teaches her baby how to breathe regularly, a skill most infants don’t fully master until they are 3-4 months old.
These experts also remind us that co-sleeping mothers find it easier to breastfeed their babies and to get more sleep; that their babies grow better because they produce less cortisol — the stress hormone — and have more regular heart rhythms and better oxygen levels; that they are happier, less anxious and have a higher self-esteem when they are older, and that they have fewer behavioral problems and are more independent later.
Moreover, they argue that bed-sharing is still the norm for 90 percent of families — mostly from other countries — and that mothers (and sometimes fathers) share a bed with their children because it is the custom in their society; because their houses only have one bedroom — or none — and because they can’t afford to buy a second bed.
There are, however, serious caveats for bed-sharers. According to Dr. McKenna, the parents shouldn’t be heavy smokers; shouldn’t be under the influence of alcohol, drugs or sedatives; shouldn’t be extremely obese; shouldn’t let older siblings sleep in the same bed and shouldn’t have extremely long hair. If they do, it should be tied up so it can’t wrap around the baby’s neck. Furthermore, a breastfed baby should sleep on a firm, flat mattress with tight sheets and a bottle-fed baby should sleep in a bassinet next to the bed, or in an Arm’s Reach bassinet ( armsreach.com), which is connected to the bed, but no baby should ever sleep on a sofa or a pillow.
Although many experts believe that co-sleeping ends when the baby is around 2, others say co-sleeping continues until age 4 or 5. Therefore it’s a bit of a stretch that your stepdaughter is still co-sleeping with her sons but it shouldn’t hurt them since few boys want to sleep with their mothers once they start waking up with erections.
Unless you have evidence to the contrary, the co-sleeping they practice is really their business, not yours, for your stepdaughter is rearing her children in her own way, as every family does. It would also be cruel to criticize her when her marriage is falling apart because she probably has a greater need to sleep next to her children than she ever has before.
Instead of fretting about it, try reading “The Baby Sleep Book” by William Sears, M. D. (Little Brown; $15) and “Sleeping with Your Baby” by James J. McKenna (Platypus; $15). They should ease your fears about co-sleeping.
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