The Surprising Reason One Study Says Co-Sleeping Moms Are More Likely to Be Depressed

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As new parents, I don’t think there’s anything we are scrutinized about quite as much as how our babies sleep. Questions like, “Is he sleeping through the night yet?” or “Is he a good sleeper?” are tossed at us from the minute our babies are born, by pretty much everyone we meet.

And if we let it slip that we share a bed with our infants, it quickly becomes judgment city, with everyone offering their unwanted opinions on the matter. It’s no wonder that about 50 percent of new parents end up lying about their baby’s sleeping arrangements. I mean, who needs the critique?

As a mom with two lousy sleepers who basically slept glued to my body for their first two years of life, I found the judgment stressful and highly irritating. All I was doing was trying to get through each day with as much sleep as I could — and with my sanity intact. I definitely didn’t need the constant scrutiny on top of it all.

Luckily, I was able to do my research and soon found that co-sleeping can be done safely, without negative emotional effects on kids. I quickly became confident in my decision to co-sleep, but I can see how some co-sleeping mothers might not get to that place of contentment quite so easily. And a new study is highlighting this very fact.

The study, conducted by researchers out of Penn State, and published in Infant and Child Development, found that the longer a mother co-sleeps with her baby, the more likely she is to be depressed. But the reason for her depression isn’t necessarily because of the co-sleeping itself, but because of the criticism leveled at her from others, and the ensuing worry she feels about her decision.

Any parent who has co-slept with their baby for an extended period is probably nodding right along with this. Yup: It’s the judgment and disapproval, not the co-sleeping itself that brings us down.

The study researchers followed 103 families during their baby’s first year of life. Interestingly, they found that the majority of families actually co-slept at the very beginning, but this number dropped off as the months progressed.

“We found that about 73 percent of families co-slept at the one-month point. That dropped to about 50 percent by three months, and by six months, it was down to about 25 percent,” Douglas Teti, professor of human development and families studies at Penn State, tells Science Daily. “Most babies that were in co-sleeping arrangements in the beginning were moved out into solitary sleep by six months.”

By six months, that smaller pool of mothers who were still co-sleeping with their babies were found to be significantly more depressed (76%) than the mothers who had stopped co-sleeping. These same mothers were also found to feel 16% more criticized for their baby’s sleep habits.

“We definitely saw that the persistent co-sleepers — the moms that were still co-sleeping after six months — were the ones who seemed to get the most criticism,” Teti explained. “Additionally, they also reported greater levels of worry about their baby’s sleep, which makes sense when you’re getting criticized about something that people are saying you shouldn’t be doing, that raises self-doubt. That’s not good for anyone.”

Not good for anyone, indeed. But is the answer to all this to stop co-sleeping? Maybe for some. But if you feel it’s what works best for you, maybe the thing to do is to seek out a more supportive network to get you through those vulnerable first few years of being a parent. It can be difficult at first, but finding your “tribe” as a parent is what ends up saving many of us from this sort of toxic critique.

Of course, it’s not only about what doctors, relatives, and friends think about your parenting decisions. As Teti points out, your partner also needs to be on board with your particular sleeping arrangement — and when that is not the case, discontent and depression can also result.

“If you’re going to co-sleep, you have to make sure both people in the partnership have talked it through and both people are in sync with what they want to do,” Teti said. “If not, that’s when criticism and arguments can happen, and possibly spill over into the relationship with child. So you want to avoid that. You need to make sure you have time with your partner, as well.”

YES. I don’t think it’s possible to really pull off co-sleeping unless both partners are on board with it. And this is especially important to keep in mind because any sleeplessness caused by co-sleeping usually falls on the mother, at Teti points out.

“If you co-sleep, it is going to disrupt your sleep, and probably Mom’s sleep more than Dad’s,” says Teti. “So this is something to be careful with if you’re not good with chronic sleep debt. Co-sleeping needs to work well for everyone, and that includes getting adequate sleep.”

But depression and sleeplessness do not have to be the norm with co-sleeping. Parents all over the world co-sleep with their children. Where co-sleeping is common, you don’t exactly hear parents bemoaning how awful it is, and how it must be the cause of all of their problems as parents.

Nope, these parents are nurtured and supported in their decisions about sleep, and therefore don’t experience the same level of depression, worry, and guilt that so many of us do. Judgment and critique don’t do anyone any good, and it’s about time we all began supporting the varied choices our fellow parents make, even if they are different than our own.

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