The decision to co-sleep (or not) with your toddler is a personal one. However, because babies are so cute, it’s often difficult to resist the urge to cuddle up next to them.
Co-sleeping with your toddler can be fun, but it is not safe with an infant. Co-sleeping is a controversial topic among parents and pediatricians.
Here, we explore the drawbacks and benefits of co-sleeping, with advice to help you decide whether to share a bed with your children.
Learn more about the safety of co-sleeping with your toddler and its potential risks. We’ll also give you some helpful tips to encourage your child to sleep safely in their bed.
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What Is Co-sleeping?
Co-sleeping is when you and your baby sleep in close physical contact in the same bed. Ideally, both of you will be aware of how close you are to each other.
Although some parents see benefits to co-sleeping with their child, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend it.
It’s much safer for your infant or toddler to sleep alone in their bed.
Co-sleeping is when a parent or caregiver shares a sleeping surface with their child at any time of the day or night.
A family might sleep in the same bed, or one parent might sleep with the child while the other parent takes another room or sleeping surface.
Families may co-sleep for the entire night, or it might happen for part of the night, such as when a toddler sneaks into their parent’s bed and spends the rest of the night there.
There are many different ways to co-sleep, but essentially, it boils down to a parent and a child occupying a sleeping surface together.
Many families who co-sleep start the co-sleeping practice during a child’s infant years. As a result, there has been much focus on the dangers of co-sleeping during a baby’s infancy.
The AAP suggests that parents sleep in the same room as their infants (known as “room-sharing”) for at least the first six months of their lives.
But they recommend that babies sleep on a safe, separate sleeping surface like a bassinet or crib instead of sharing a bed with their parents.
How Did Sleep Become So Controversial?
For most of human history, parents slept close to their babies for their safety and protection, as well as for parents’ ease of breastfeeding and sleeping.
The particular arrangements varied—some parents slept nestled with their babies on the same bed, mat, or rug; others placed their babies in a hammock or basket within arms’ reach; still, others put them in a “sidecar” arrangement next to the adult bed.
But all of them slept within the sensory range of their babies.
About 500 years ago, Western societies diverged from the rest of the world regarding family sleep.
Historical records from northern Europe show that Catholic priests hear confessions from impoverished women who had “overlain” onto their newborns, suffocating them in a desperate attempt to limit their family size—they couldn’t support another child.
So the church ordered that babies should sleep in a separate cradle until the age of three.
Over time, other Western trends converged with that decree: Rising affluence and the value of independence and individualism made separate bedrooms fashionable.
In addition, Freudian psychology privileged the marriage bed and claimed that babies would be harmed if they were exposed to their parents’ sexuality.
The religious and psychological opinion said that children should not be coddled or indulged but required severe discipline to grow up (“spare the rod, spoil the child”).
As recently as the 1960s, the kindly Dr Spock recommended that newborns be trained to sleep alone, and if the baby’s crying stressed the parents, they should place a towel under the door to block out the noise.
In the 1990s, parents “Ferberized” their babies—letting them “cry it out” to sleep “independently,” based on the book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber.
The Logistics Of Safe Baby Sleep
Some experts caution against putting too much emphasis on where you sleep rather than how.
Location is not as important as relationships—how parents build attachment and love.
He also points out that gaining independence, which is part of the rationale for advocating crib sleeping, is something that a child will learn over time from her parents in many different ways.
The worst place for a newborn to doze is on a couch, armchair, and other soft, lumpy surfaces, which can create air pockets that make it difficult for her to breathe.
This is especially dangerous during late-night feedings when both mom and baby are exhausted.
If you think that there’s even the slightest possibility that you may fall asleep during a feeding, feed your baby on your bed, rather than a sofa or cushioned chair.
If you fall asleep, be sure to move the baby to their bed as soon as you wake up.
The AAP recommends infants sleep on their backs in cribs outfitted with only a mattress covered with a tightly fitted sheet.
There shouldn’t be any other items, such as toys or blankets, in the crib until the baby turns one.
Why Families Co-sleep
Regardless of the reasons for co-sleeping, the effects of co-sleeping on a family can vary quite a bit.
One family might find co-sleeping a positive experience and believe it brings the family closer, while others might be frustrated with sharing the bed with a little one.
If co-sleeping could negatively impact a parent’s sleep, why do families do it? There are many different reasons—not all obvious at first glance—that might lead to a decision to co-sleep.
Everything from living situations, a lack of sleeping spaces, and cultural beliefs and traditions can contribute to co-sleep.
Some parents might work night shifts, for example, and choose to co-sleep to spend more time together with their children.
Meanwhile, other families believe that co-sleeping comes with benefits, such as allowing children to bond with their parents. Co-sleeping can even help kids feel safe and secure.
But for other families, co-sleeping is not beneficial to their sleep or their family. They are tired and long for more space in the bed.
As a result, they don’t want to co-sleep but aren’t sure how to help their toddler sleep more independently.
The Benefits Of Co-sleeping
The practical benefits of bed-sharing are apparent.
Not only are parents close by to respond to the baby if something goes wrong, but co-sleeping makes it easier for the breastfeeding mom to nurse throughout the night. Then, of course, there’s the irresistible sweet intimacy of it.
There is an instinctive need for the mother to be close to her baby. So working women who don’t get to see their babies all day may be especially attracted to co-sleeping to make up for the missed contact.
Keeping the baby close with skin-to-skin contact calms the baby. And it can cement the emotional bond between mother and child.
What about sharing a bed with older children, for whom co-sleeping poses no significant health risks?
When other risk factors are not present, official discouraging of co-sleeping is coercion and scare-mongering and treating women like they are not intelligent.
It’s biologically normal to co-sleep. However, parents should be informed of the pros and cons of bed-sharing, including the potential benefit of helping babies regulate their breathing and temperature.
Even the AAP says sharing a bedroom (just not a sleeping surface) with your baby is beneficial: It recommends infants nap in the same room as their parents for up to a year, optimally, but at least for their first six months life.
There’s a historical precedent for the practice. In many cultures all over the world, children have shared a bed with their parents for centuries.
Nursing mothers get more sleep this way. In addition, some breastfeeding moms find it easier to have their child nearby for nighttime feedings with minimal interruption of sleep for both parties.
It helps children feel safe and secure.
Some parents believe it’s cruel to isolate a highly social child by putting him in his bed alone at night.
Others feel that children derive a greater sense of security and well-being from sleeping near their parents.
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The Drawbacks Of Co-sleeping
Helping kids become confident; independent sleepers is more important than any positive effects of co-sleeping.
Sharing a family bed almost always, eventually, becomes problematic for a variety of reasons, including the following:
Your Kids May Develop A Sleep Crutch.
Always having a parent around at bedtime can become a vital “sleep onset association,” also called a sleep crutch or sleep prop—something your kid can’t drift off without.
Children need to learn how to fall asleep without a parent nearby. Your kids may display anxious behaviours.
In addition to developing the sleep crutch, some children will come to expect interactions like back rubbing, patting, and being held to fall asleep.
They may be misdiagnosed as anxious because, since they have difficulty falling asleep without a parent nearby, they sometimes display nervous behaviours to convince a parent to stay nearby at bedtime.
One Bedtime Doesn’t Fit All.
Children of different ages need different amounts of sleep, and their bedtimes vary accordingly.
In families that share a bed, parents and older children end up turning in much earlier than they might wish, based on when the youngest children need to. This situation quickly becomes frustrating for everyone involved.
Your Sleep Quality May Suffer.
As notoriously restless and active sleepers, children can disrupt their parents’ sleep by kicking or thrashing around.
We’ve seen many families where one parent—most often, the father—ends up sleeping in a different room entirely.
The parent with the children often becomes exhausted by either the restless sleep of the kids or the needs of each kid after an awakening.
Your Relationship May Suffer.
For many couples with children, evenings are the only time they have to be alone together.
However, when you’re sharing a bed with your kids, they’re separating you from your partner. The co-sleeping arrangement leaves little time or space for intimacy.
It Increases The Risk Of Sids And Suffocation.
And of course, don’t forget that co-sleeping increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
Parents or objects (like pillows) may unknowingly roll onto the baby at night, leading to injury, suffocation, or death.
The AAP says co-sleeping is especially dangerous if the baby is younger than four months, was born prematurely, or had a low birth weight.
The risk also increases if someone in bed smokes, drinks, or takes drugs—or if the co-sleeping surface is soft and has bedding.
How To Encourage Independent Sleep
If your family is co-sleeping with a toddler and you hope to encourage your toddler to sleep more independently, you may wonder how to get a toddler to sleep on their own.
If you’ve tried and been unsuccessful, you probably already know that breaking a co-sleeping habit can be difficult.
You’re exhausted. Your child is finished, and everyone is cranky.
As a result, it can be tough to make the necessary changes to help implement a new habit. But, there are ways to try to encourage independent sleep.
Work With Your Pediatrician To Develop A Sleep Plan.
There’s no shame in asking for help from a professional.
Sleep is essential for the entire family, and in fact, it might be one of the most important factors for overall health.
So, it just makes sense to include your child’s pediatrician in any struggles you may be facing with sleep so you can work on a plan for the future together.
Consider A Sleep Coach.
If you have the financial means, a sleep coach might be the right choice for your family.
Families who have utilised a sleep coach have seen results in as little as one to two sessions.
Consequently, it may be worth the investment if you see results quickly. Another option is Big Little Feelings.
This online course for parents of toddlers provides specific tools to help parents make and stick with a plan to help young children stay in their beds throughout the night.
Is Co-sleeping With A Toddler Safe?
It is not safe to share a bed with your infant or toddler. The AAP recommends creating a solo sleeping space for your child, which includes:
- Putting your infant in a prone sleeping position (on their back)
- Placing them on a firm surface like a quality mattress
- Having their crib, bassinet, or toddler bed
- Room-sharing with the parent for comfort
While it can be fun to co-sleep with your baby, doing so can cause them a lot of harm. For example, you could roll over them and cause injury during deep sleep.
This may also cause suffocation if the baby gets trapped between the mattress, headboard, wall, and soft bedding like pillows or blankets.
When the baby is in such a position, it could lead to death by suffocation.
Co-sleeping with a child over one year old has a little less risk than with a child under 12 months.
At a toddler’s age of one to two years old, they can roll over and free themselves if they are trapped in the bed.
As a child gets older, it becomes less risky to co-sleep, but it’s still best for them to sleep on their own.
Most parents have a natural inclination to sleep protectively near their babies, and data suggest that co-sleeping is on the increase.
In 2015, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that more than half (61 per cent) of babies bedshare at least some of the time.
And while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2016 that parents and babies sleep in the same room together for at least the first six months of life, and preferably for the first year, they stopped short of recommending that parents and babies share the same bed.
That makes for a gap between what most parents do and what they are officially “allowed” to do.
As a result, many parents are afraid to let their pediatrician know they bedshare for fear of being criticised or, worse, reported to child protective services.
When that conversation is stopped, parents are deprived of accurate information about making their bed-sharing most safe and beneficial.
To that end, his book offers guidance, even drawings, for every sleeping circumstance.
After the first six months of life, when a baby’s physiology is more settled, various factors can come into play in the decision about where to sleep, like cultural beliefs, overall family well-being, and an individual baby’s temperament or medical needs.
For example, a family may decide that a biologically sensitive child may benefit more from remaining close to the parents longer; on the other hand, a co-parent may need a separate sleeping arrangement to sleep better—and a happier parent is a better parent.
All the researchers agree that families do better when the adults are intentional and in agreement about their choices.
Significantly, normalise expectations around sleep: Even by one year, not even half of babies sleep through the night, and eventually, it is the quality of the parent-child relationship, not where it plays out, that matters most to a child’s development.
Like an actual anthropologist, he believes that only parents can honestly know their families’ specific needs. They must be free to make the choices that best serve them—they have the right to be accurately informed about all the issues involved.
Safe Infant Sleep should be in every pediatrician’s office and available to any parent who wants to understand how their babies’ sleep works.
Making The Decision To Co-sleep
If you do choose to follow the co-sleeping route, make sure the togetherness you desire addresses your child’s needs and not just your own.
If you’re a single parent or your spouse is often away from home, for instance, you should not allow your child to sleep with you to stave off your loneliness.
Children who start co-sleeping at an early age aren’t likely to “grow out” of it once it has become as commonplace as sleeping with a pillow to them.
The long-term effects can be socially damaging too.
As the child grows up, they may not be able to participate in activities that other children the same age are enjoying, like sleepover parties, summer camp, and overnight field trips.
If you’ve been sharing your bed because you feel it will be easier for your little one to sleep that way, it’s not too late to break the habit.
You can certainly teach your child to fall asleep in her bed within a few days.
It’s important to note that co-sleeping with children under 12 months is not considered safe sleep practice and is strongly discouraged.
When it comes to co-sleeping with your toddler, it ultimately comes down to choosing the option that works best for your family.
The bottom line is that a good night’s sleep is essential to everyone, and it impacts both your physical and mental health.
If you’re currently co-sleeping and it’s working for you, there is no reason to change anything.
But if it’s not working for your family, talk to your child’s pediatrician to create a plan of action so that your little one can learn to sleep more independently.
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