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In the world of parenting, “co-sleeping” is a hot-button topic. While the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages infants from sleeping with their parents (due to the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), they do recommend that babies sleep in their parent’s bedrooms — a sleeping arrangement that’s been found to reduce the risk of SIDS by 50 percent during a child’s first year of life.
Despite these recommendations, many American parents co-sleep with their babies right in the bed with them, and new research suggests that this phenomenon extends well beyond infancy. But it seems mothers and fathers aren’t openly talking about their sleep decisions; as a matter of fact, many parents are co-sleeping in secrecy.
Susan Stewart, Ph.D., a sociologist at Iowa State University, interviewed 51 co-sleeping parents about their family’s sleeping habits. She found that 50 percent of these parents lie to their friends, family members, and pediatricians about nesting with their children.
“I discovered that when these parents talked about co-sleeping with friends, family members, and their pediatricians, they were led to believe that bed-sharing was harmful to their babies,” Stewart tells Babble. “Some of them were even told that co-sleeping would spoil their children and make them needy.”
Despite what people may think, bed sharing does not make children overly dependent or emotionally fragile. Research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that babies who co-slept with their parents were no more likely to have cognitive or behavioral delays than children who slept solo. Stewart adds that babies who co-sleep often grow up to feel more secure and attached to their parents.
Despite these positive findings, co-sleeping is still often frowned upon in the United States. And this advice starts pouring in shortly after the baby’s birth. “How is your baby sleeping?” is one of the first questions new parents are asked followed by, “Does your baby sleep in your room?”
Unfortunately, parents who readily admit that they cozy up with their newborns often receive a lot of scrutiny and judgment about this individual parenting decision.
“The parents in my study felt so guilty because they worried that they were putting their children at risk,” says Stewart, who believes that this shame-based stigma only perpetuates a lot of parenting guilt.
“Unfortunately, American society does not take a village approach to child-rearing,” she says. “It’s a very driven culture, and parents are led to believe that if anything goes wrong with their child, they are to blame.”
Stewart hopes to help break this stigma by providing support for co-sleeping parents. In her new book, Co-Sleeping: Parents, Children, and Musical Beds, she explores exactly why parents choose to co-sleep, and how this decision affects intimacy with their partners, as well as the bond they share with their children.
While there are many books and articles written about co-sleeping, many of them focus on infant safety and SIDS. Stewart is one of the first researchers to look at this topic from a non-medical angle.
In her research, she found that co-sleepers are wide and varied. Some co-sleeping parents wanted to break the habit of bed sharing with their kids, but it seemed like an overwhelming task. Other children crept out of bed in the middle of the night and climbed into bed with their parents, and co-sleeping became the new family norm. One interesting finding Stewart found was that despite the widespread notion that parenting style and culture may influence a parent’s decision to co-sleep, stress also plays a role.
“Parents also choose to co-sleep because they are exhausted,” she shares. “They’re stressed, and honestly, it’s often easier for them to sleep with their kids. It’s one way for busy families to spend time together.”
By talking to many parents, Stewart also received an intimate view of the hardships of motherhood.
“Everyone is telling you how to parent, but not supporting your parenting decisions,” she says. “This judgment makes mothers feel like they are not good enough.”
Because of this, Stewart says that today’s parents feel immense pressure to raise the “perfect” child. Many of them described parenting as a “24-7 job” that requires “all hands on deck.” She says that these beliefs create a more competitive parenting culture, and that this is why some parents deny that they co-sleep. Stewart also reminds parents that co-sleeping is a social and family dynamic, and that one person’s disruptive sleep affects everyone.
It seems that this same philosophy can be applied to most parenting practices. Parenting is also a social dynamic, and when someone shares advice about another mother’s decisions to co-sleep, breastfeed, or return to work, it can really affect how she feels about her role as a mother in general.
Stewart’s research is a wise reminder that if we can take the finger pointing out of child-rearing, more mothers and fathers may come together in a village, creating a space where parenting decisions are shared and supported instead of stigmatized.