Your pediatrician will probably tell you that your baby should get used to sleeping by him or herself as soon after birth as possible. The reasoning is that in American culture we emphasize early independence, so babies should adapt quickly to being away from their parents. This is especially true if both parents work and the children are in day care. But there is another school of thought that maintains that babies should sleep in the same bed as their parents (an idea shared by about eighty percent of the world's population). The rationale is that human evolution simply can't keep pace with the new demands our culture is placing on its children. "Proximity to parental sounds, smells, heat, and movement during the night is precisely what the human infant's immature system expects—and needs," says James McKenna, an anthropologist and sleep researcher. So which approach is right?
Well, given the wide divergence of expert opinions out there, it's a tough call—one you'll ultimately have to make on your own. Our older daughter slept in a bassinet in our room for a month or so until we moved her into her own room. Our younger daughter, however, slept in bed with us for six months before moving to her own room. Neither of them had any trouble making the transition, or any unusual sleep problems thereafter.
Here are a few of the most common questions you're likely to have if you haven't already decided where your child will be sleeping:
• How will it affect the baby's independence? There's absolutely no agreement on this. Richard Ferber, author of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, maintains that "sleeping alone is an important part of a child's learning to be able to separate from his parents without anxiety and to see himself as an independent individual." In contrast, Thomas F. Anders, M.D., a professor of psychiatry, contends that "every child is born with a strong need for lots of close physical contact with a caregiver, and children in whom this need isn't met early in their lives may end up trying to fill it as adults."
• What about safety? Most adults, even while asleep, have a highly developed sense of where they are. After all, when was the last time you fell out of bed? So the risk of accidentally suffocating your baby is pretty slim.
• How will the baby sleep? Despite what you might think, co-sleeping children tend to sleep more lightly than children who sleep alone (blankets rustling and parents turning over in bed wake them up). But light sleeping isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there seems to be a correlation between lighter sleep and a lower incidence of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
Sharing a bed with your infant not only affects your child, but it can also have a serious impact on you.
You'll lose a lot of sexual spontaneity, and you may also lose some sleep. Even the soundest-sleeping kids generally wake up every three or four hours; 70 percent of them just look around for a few minutes and soothe themselves back to sleep. But if your baby is in the other 30 percent, he or she may wake up, see you, and want to play. If you decide to share your bed with your child, do it because you and your partner want to, not because you feel you have to. You're not negligent or overindulgent parents for doing it, so don't be embarrassed by your choice. But remember: no waterbeds—a baby could roll between you and the mattress.
Also, overly soft mattresses and pillows may pose a risk of suffocation. If you decide that family sleeping isn't for you, don't feel guilty. You're not a bad or selfish parent for not wanting to do it. Teaching your children to be independent does not mean that you don't have a close bond with them. But don't feel like a failure if you allow an occasional exception, such as when a child is ill or has had a frightening experience.
A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is also the author of The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-to-Be, A Dad’s Guide to the Toddler Years and The Single Father: A Dad’s Guide to Parenting without a Partner. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts “Positive Parenting”, a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at www.mrdad.com.