The practice of parents co-sleeping with their children (sharing the bed with their child or sleeping on different cots in the same room) is quite old, especially in the Eastern cultures where the family is considered above an individual. In India, most children share the bed with their parents until they are 6–8 years old. However, in most Western countries, the practice of co-sleeping with children is frowned upon and considered emotionally unhealthy.
In her article, ‘The Dangers of Co-Sleeping With an Older Child and 6 Strategies to Stop It’, published in the Huffington Post (July 14, 2015), Dr Kate Roberts highlights some of the dangers of co-sleeping. She says, “The impact of chronic co-sleeping on a person’s functioning—younger and older—can run the gamut from increased dependency and anxiety to memory loss, fatigue, low energy, depression, and obesity.”
With so much research being carried out on co-sleeping, let’s look at some of the common pros and cons suggested in most of these studies:
Pros of co-sleeping with the child:
1. Better sleep habits: Young children are full of energy and don’t know how to unwind themselves when they lie down to sleep on the bed. As a result, transitioning from wakefulness to sleep becomes difficult for them and they stay awake. Co-sleeping provides parents of such children an opportunity to guide their little ones on how to settle down and fall asleep. This leads to children learning better sleep habits.
2. Robust health and better immune system: In case of young children, co-sleeping with the mother makes them feel calm, which results in regular heart rhythm and more stable body temperature. On the contrary, children who sleep alone have higher stress levels, which adversely affects their heart rate, blood pressure and immune system.
3. Positive effect on emotional health: Young children who co-sleep with their parents grow up into individuals who have higher self-esteem and are less anxious. Co-sleeping provides children the opportunity to cuddle up with their parents, if they share the same bed. Even if they don’t share the bed but sleep on different cots in the same room, they feel secure, loved and connected. Also, when they sleep with their parents, it helps them open up and speak about the happenings of the day or any other specific problem they may have. All these positive effects help children in growing up into well-balanced individuals.
4. Positive effect on family: Children who sleep alone may wake up during the night feeling lonely and scared or suffering from separation anxiety. During such moments, they may cry loudly to seek help from their parents, waking up their parents in the process. This can result in disturbed sleep for everyone. But when children sleep beside their parents, such instances are rare, as being beside their parents makes them feel reassured. Also, when a family sleeps together, they develop a sleep rhythm of their own, where everyone falls asleep at almost the same time.
How to get a child to sleep separately:
Sleeping separately from parents as he grows up, is a sign of a child seeking to take one more step towards independence. This step requires adapting to change. The ability to cope well with any change signifies growing maturity for the child – taking small risks, willingness to trying something new, and comfort with new experiences. These come from feeling secure and knowing that there are caring people to support him through the change. A child who refuses to try out a new pattern has either got into a habit (and habits are hard to break!) or, maybe, feels insecure in some ways.
Sometimes a child may need to be firmly pushed into it, with no options but must also be supported through the change with a reward for his effort. If a child refuses or becomes extremely distressed with the change, make efforts to understand if he has real or unfounded fears, misgivings or because he knows that you will give up in the end.
— * Arundhati Swamy
Cons of co-sleeping with the child:
1. Increased sleep problems: Children who tend to co-sleep with their parents report increased instances of sleep problems than children who sleep alone. According to the findings of a study by Cortesi et al published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine in 2008, “Results suggested that cosleepers have a significantly later bedtime, shorter nighttime sleep duration, higher Children's Sleep Habits Questionnaire (CSHQ) bedtime resistance and sleep anxiety scores, and more behavioral and emotional problems compared to other groups.”
2. Poor quality and inadequate amount of sleep: The fear of rolling over and crushing their child or the child frequently moving and touching the parent prevents many parents from sleeping well at night. As a result, they wake up feeling tired and inadequately rested. Also, children require more hours of sleep than adults. And, when parents wake up and leave the bed, most children also wake up along with them. Thus, children who co-sleep also don’t get enough rest and sleep.
3. Increased dependence on parents: It is generally seen that young children who co-sleep with their parents during the night are unable to sleep on their own even during the daytime. They always require the company of their parents to fall asleep. Such dependence results in irregular bedtimes for children, as they tend to wait for their parents who might have irregular bedtimes due to a host of reasons.
4. Becoming privy to parent’s problems: In today’s busy schedule, a few minutes before falling asleep is the only time when couples can talk to each other about family or other issues. Assuming that their young child has fallen asleep, when couples start discussing their problems, they let the secret out to their child as well. Becoming privy to the problems, yet being unable to understand everything, can adversely impact the child’s mental health.
Now that you know some of the pros and cons of co-sleeping with your child, you would be in a better position to make a decision.
* Arundhati Swamy is a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle.
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