My parents separated when I was five years old. For several years after that, I remember coming into my mom’s room late at night, after lying in bed sleepless as long as I could stand it. “Can I sleep with you?” I’d whisper hopefully.
And yes, sometimes she did bring me back to my own bed, with a tuck-in and a kiss. But just as often, she’d let me crawl into the warm bed beside her and fall asleep there. And what a good, happy, safe feeling that was.
Later, Mom told me what a horrible co-sleeper I was as a little girl. I kicked and punched, rolled and sometimes wound up lying diagonally or stretched horizontal across the bed. Not only was sleeping next to me, uh, not so restful, but she worried about whether letting me in her bed was the right thing to do. Co-sleeping wasn’t a thing people admitted to in those days, even if they did practice it.
So I appreciate that, more often than not, my mom took my need to not be alone at night seriously even if she wasn’t 100% sure she was doing the right thing and wound up with a few bruises in the meanwhile. Because wanting to sleep next to my mom wasn’t weird.
It meant that I was a normal small person who didn’t like being alone in the dark and who was adjusting to life changes: the divorce was a major one, but like most kids of that age I was also beginning kindergarten, learning to make new friends, and my rapidly-developing imagination had created all kinds of monsters in my closet. I craved and was comforted by human connection from the people I trusted most. Sounds kind of…normal, huh?
And being allowed to sleep next to my mom didn’t stunt my growth, inhibit my development or turn me into a kitten-kicker or chronic paste-eater, either. Which seems equally unsurprising. Now a new study backs up what’s been obvious to me all along: sharing a bed with your toddler won’t completely mess him up.
But why would it? Can anyone give me one compelling reason why sleeping next to a parent might harm a child’s intellectual or social development? Why sleeping next to Mom and Dad would make a child play less well with others or stumble over her reading lessons?
We have co-slept with all five of our kids, for varying lengths of time. While I don’t personally agree with the idea that sharing sleep with an infant is always dangerous, at least I can understand why it could be a risk. (To minimize potential risk, I follow Dr. James McKenna’s guidelines.) But I have never really understood our cultural discomfort with small children – say, toddler and older – and parents wanting to be near one another at night.
That’s not to say I think all parents and kids should co-sleep or that the family bed should go on forever. Some babies and children and their parents don’t sleep well next to one another, for one thing, and everyone just gets better sleep in their own beds. Other children need a little more encouragement to sleep on their own, but that doesn’t mean they’ll still be begging to sleep next to you in Junior High.
Our kids have all left our bed somewhere between the ages of 2 and 4 or so, with some adjustments as they got used to sleeping on their own. I promise you, my 11- and 13-year-olds aren’t remotely interested in crawling back in our beds at night, though they do seem to appreciate sharing a room with one another.
We were eager to re-claim our bed when our youngest became a toddler, and now that she’s two and a half, we’ve gotten her to stay pretty successfully in her own bed most nights. But my five-year-old son Owen still tries to slip into Mom and Dad’s bed many nights. He’s got a big imagination that, right now, is full of fears and nighttime anxieties.
He’s also, unfortunately, a sleep kicker-puncher, just like I was at his age, and doesn’t really fit into a bed with two adults. But I still take his need for nighttime attention and reassurance seriously, even when I ultimately lead him back to his own bed. It’s not about attachment parenting or being “crunchy” or any of that…it’s just about not wanting my child to lay in bed afraid for hours, as I remember doing when I was his age.
And on those nights that he’s just too distraught to sleep alone, yes…I let him slip in beside me, cuddle up under my arm, and fall asleep in the safe warmth that I remember feeling so well all those years ago.
Eventually, kids really do move into their own beds. In the meanwhile, if sharing sleep feels right, you’re doing the right thing. Like me, maybe you knew that all along, but at least now we’ve got a study to prove it.