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Should I let my baby sleep with me

by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

(Bed Sharing Safety Tips)

This article is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Aletha Solter's book, The Aware Baby (revised edition).

Copyright © 2001 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

The young of all land mammals sleep in close proximity to their mothers. During the millions of years of prehistoric times, human infants probably slept with their mothers. In traditional tribal cultures today, the practice of sleeping with infants is still quite common. However, in the technologically advanced cultures of North America and Europe, this practice has been largely abandoned in favor of cradles and cribs. In most homes, the infant does not even sleep in the same room as the parents.

When and why did the natural practice of sleeping with infants become lost in Western cultures? During the 13th century in Europe, the Catholic priests first began recommending that mothers stop sleeping with their infants.(1) Although the primary reason for this advice was probably the rise of patriarchy and the fear of too much feminine influence on infants (especially male infants), the reason given for this advice was the fear of smothering the infants, commonly known as “overlaying.” It is now believed that most of the cases of infant deaths during the Middle Ages were caused by illness or infanticide. When accidental smothering occurred, it was probably caused by parents who were under the influence of alcohol.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, the advice not to sleep with infants began to take effect, and cradles were commonplace items of furniture in most European homes with children.(2) The age at which infants were put to sleep in cradles for the night, rather than in their mothers’ arms, became gradually younger. After the industrial revolution in the 18th century, the notion of "spoiling" became widespread in industrialized countries, and mothers were warned not to hold their infants too much for fear of creating demanding monsters.

During the twentieth century, infants in technological societies became more separated from their mothers than ever before in the history of our species. More and more births took place in hospitals, and the hospital central nursery was invented to protect the infants from infections. From day one, babies were expected to sleep alone, away from their mothers. The decline in breastfeeding, promoted by companies producing breast milk substitutes, further contributed to this separation of mothers from infants. During breastfeeding, mothers normally produce hormones (such as oxytocin and prolactin), which help create a strong desire to be physically close to their babies. Bottle-feeding deprives mothers of the hormones and eliminates the need for the biological mother’s physical presence. The result of all these influences is that, by 1950, very few babies in Western, industrialized nations slept with their mothers.

It is little wonder that parents began seeking advice for a whole new array of problems. Experts in the field of child rearing found themselves searching for remedies for the babies who would not go to sleep at night, for those who banged their heads, for toddlers who climbed out of their cribs and kept coming into their parents’ bed, and for the young children who wet their beds, or had nightmares and fears of the dark. Many of these sleep-related problems could be the result of forcing babies to sleep alone.

Could it be that the increasing prevalence of teen sexuality and pregnancy reflects a need to be held more than a desire for sex? The expression “to sleep with someone,” implies to have sex. Perhaps this expression reflects a universal, unfilled childhood need to sleep next to one’s parents and to be held during the night.

Fortunately, the practice of sleeping with infants and young children is becoming more widely recommended and accepted in Western, industrialized nations, as parents begin to trust their natural inclinations to share their beds with their infants. Starting in the 1970’s a few books began to recommend that parents sleep with their babies. There are now many books that recommend bed sharing, commonly known as “co-sleeping.”(3)

Babies have strong attachment needs that researchers are just beginning to understand. The need for close physical contact, both during the day and at night, is a vital and legitimate need during the first few years. Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, recognized this when she wrote: “It is a primitive need of the child to have close and warm contact with another person’s body while falling asleep.... The infant’s biological need for the caretaking adult’s constant presence is disregarded in our Western culture, and children are exposed to long hours of solitude owing to the misconception that it is healthy for the young to sleep ... alone.”(4)

Some child-rearing specialists state that babies will never want to leave once they have been taken into their parents’ bed. This may be true during the first few years when children need the closeness and security. However, we do not need to force children to become independent. This occurs of its own accord when children outgrow their early needs.

The strong desire of human babies to sleep near their mothers may have its basis in our evolutionary history. During the hunter-gatherer stage of our species’ existence babies would have been extremely vulnerable to predators and cold weather, especially at night. Infants who feared the dark and who refused to sleep alone had a much better chance of surviving than those infants who did not complain when put down. So there was strong selective pressure in favor of such fears.(5) Although predators are no longer a threat, and we have heated homes, modern human infants’ reflexes, instincts, and needs are still geared to the hunter-gatherer way of life. Cultural changes have occurred much too rapidly to have any major impact on the genetic makeup of our species since that time...

Researchers have studied the sleep patterns and brain waves of infants who share a bed with their mothers, compared with those of infants who sleep alone. Infants who sleep with their mothers have more brief awakenings, and also spend less time in deep sleep than solitary-sleeping infants. This is probably because of the mother’s sounds and movements during her own sleep.(6)

This nighttime stimulation has been proposed as a possible protection against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). One theory of SIDS is that the infants are sleeping so soundly that they are unable to arouse themselves and continue breathing during a long breath-holding episode (apnea).(7) Cross-cultural studies have shown that, in cultures where infants are held regularly and where mothers sleep with their infants, SIDS rates are low compared to those cultures where these practices are not followed.(8) The researchers do not claim that sleeping alone causes SIDS, but they do suggest that letting infants sleep with their mothers could be a protective factor for those infants who are at risk for dying of SIDS.

Sleeping with your baby may require time to adapt, but with a little perseverance, bed sharing can become enjoyable for everybody. However, if it does not work well for you to share your bed with your baby, then at least you can provide physical closeness until your baby falls asleep, and you can respond promptly when he awakens during the night.

Notes

1. Renggli, F. (1992). Selbstzerstörung aus Verlassenheit: Die Pest als Ausbruch einer Massenpsychose im Mittelalter. Rasch und Röhring Verlag.

2. Renggli, F. (1992). (See 1)

3. Thevenin, T. (1987). The Family Bed: An Age Old Concept in Childrearing. Wayne, NJ: Avery Publishing Group, Inc. (First published in 1976). Sears, W. & Sears, M. (1993). The Baby Book: Everything you Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two. Little, Brown & Company. Granju, K.A. & Kennedy, B. (1999). Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child. Pocket Books.

4. Freud, A. (1965). Normality and Pathology in Childhood. New York: International Universities Press.

5. Scott, J.P. (1967). The process of primary socialization in canine and human infants. In J. Hellmuth (Ed.), Exceptional Infant. Vol. 1: The Normal Infant. Seattle: Special Child Publications.

6. Mosko, S., Richard, C., & McKenna, J. (1997). Infant arousals during mother-infant bed sharing: implications for infant sleep and sudden infant death syndrome research. Pediatrics, 100(5), 841-849.

7. Mosko et al. (1997). (See 6)

8. Rognum, O.T. (1995). Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: New Trends in the Nineties. Oslo, Norway: Scandinavian University Press.

Important warning

There have been reported cases of infants smothering while sleeping in their parents' bed, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission does not recommend sharing a bed with an infant. The danger of overlaying is highest during the first 3 months, and the danger of infants becoming wedged in a crevice is highest between 3 and 7 months. However, there are many reported deaths of infants sleeping alone in cribs. So wherever your infant sleeps, it is important to take safety precautions. If you sleep with your infant, the following bed sharing safety tips should be followed.

Bed Sharing Safety Tips

The following safety tips apply to anyone who shares a bed with an infant (not only the mother).

orange ball Do not take any drugs that can affect your sleep (alcohol, tranquillizers, antidepressants, illegal drugs, etc.)
orange ball Never smoke in the room where your infant sleeps.
orange ball Use a firm mattress. Do not sleep with your infant on a soft mattress, or on a water bed, bean bag chair, or couch.
orange ball Take precautions so your infant will not fall out of bed.
orange ball Avoid crevices between your mattress and the wall or headboard.
orange ball Never place your infant on a pillow.
orange ball Always lay your infant on its back to sleep.
orange ball Do not use a feather bed (duvet).
orange ball Do not place any stuffed animals in the bed (or live ones!).
orange ball Do not sleep with your infant if you are obese.
orange ball Tie your hair back if it is very long.
orange ball Do not let your infant share a bed with another child.
orange ball Do not place your infant near curtains with dangling strings.
orange ball Never leave your infant alone in an adult bed.

Copyright © 2001 by Aletha Solter

Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.

Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.


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This page was last updated on February 11, 2013. Copyright © 2001 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. When babies display emotional, behavioral, or medical problems of any kind, parents are strongly advised to seek competent medical advice and treatment. Some of the suggestions in this article may be inappropriate for babies suffering from certain emotional, behavioral, or physical problems. Aletha Solter, The Aware Parenting Institute, and Shining Star Press shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the information contained in this article.