When Is a Child Too Old to Sleep in His Parent's Bed?

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The co-sleeping debate is one that rages on. Ultimately, each parent must make her own mind up about how she raises her child, and this includes considering sleeping arrangements. Being aware of the advantages and disadvantages of sharing a bed with your child will put you in the best place to decide whether co-sleeping is for you. At a later stage, you will need to decide at what age you move your child out of your bed and into his own.

What is Co-Sleeping?

Co-sleeping is sharing a bed with your baby. In the early 1970s, writer Jean Liedloff spent more than two years living with an Indian tribe in the South American jungle, observing how those tribal parents raised their children. She later wrote "The Continuum Concept" which encouraged parents to share a bed with their children. In many cultures, co-sleeping remains the norm; however, in the United States today, opinion is divided, not only amongst parents but amongst parenting experts. A child who has grown up sleeping in her parents' bed may struggle with the transition to her own, but after the initial period of adjustment most kids sleep well in their own beds, says Baby Center. (ref 1)

Benefits of Co-Sleeping

Supporters of co-sleeping say that it makes breastfeeding easier, strengthens the bond between parent and child and improves sleep quality for all members of the family. Co-sleeping infants rarely wake up during the night, says pediatrician and bestselling author Dr. Bill Sears, whereas those who sleep alone tend to startle and cry frequently. (ref 3) This leads to increased heart rate and blood pressure, which prevents restful sleep and may lead to long-term sleep anxiety. Sears also points out that co-sleeping babies have more stable body temperatures, more regular heart rhythms and shorter gaps in breathing than infants who sleep alone. Sears believes babies who share a bed with their parents grow to be more confident and independent children, because of the early nurturing from co-sleeping.

Risks of Co-Sleeping

Opponents of co-sleeping point out that the practice increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and other accidental sleep-related infant fatalities. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants do not share a bed with anybody else, to prevent the risk of getting accidentally suffocated by a parent or bedding, or trapped in the space between the bed and the wall. Room-sharing is encouraged, however. A 2013 study from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's Department of Medical Statistics concludes that bed-sharing does increase the risk of SIDS, although the risks are far greater when a parent smokes, drinks alcohol or takes drugs. (ref 5) The report also acknowledges that the risks decrease as the child grows. Bed-sharing with an older child may have an adverse effect on sleep quality for the whole family, says Baby Center, because everyone has less room in the bed to be comfortable. (ref 6) It can also restrict the parents' sex life because there are no opportunities for private nighttime intimacy in the bedroom. Some traditional parenting experts believe bed-sharing makes a child more dependent on his parents, but much of this skepticism has waned over recent years. For example, sleep expert Richard Ferber warned parents against bed-sharing in the 1985 edition of his book "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems." In the 2006 revision, he acknowledges that a child is not prevented from developing his own sense of individuality simply because he shares a bed with his parents and advises parents to do whatever feels most comfortable for them and their child.

How Old is Too Old?

If you have been co-sleeping with your infant since birth, following all safety measures (such as eliminating all risks of trapping, avoiding heavy, fluffy pillows and bedding and abstaining from cigarettes, alcohol and all drugs that could affect your ability to respond to your child's needs) and have found that it works for you and your child, it is entirely up to you when to move him into his own bed. Make the transition when it feels natural, advises BabyCenter. If you are pregnant again, want more private time with your partner or feel that your child is not getting a restful night's sleep, it may be a good time to stop co-sleeping. Sharing a bed with nine-year-old may be extreme, Sears tell Laura Stampler in the article "Co-Sleeping Bad For Kids? These Parents Kept It Secret" for "Huffington Post," (ref 6) but adds that a child's lack of intimacy is more of a concern to him than over-attachment. Most children want more privacy when they hit puberty, so it's extremely unlikely that a child would want to share a bed with her parents beyond the age of 13, says Judy Arnall, author of "Discipline without Distress" in the article "School-Age Children and the Family Bed" for "The Attached Family." (ref 9) When it comes to bed-sharing with pre-teens, all members of the family should wear nightclothes, says Arnall, and the arrangement should cease as soon as any member of the family becomes uncomfortable with it (be it parent or child). Sears recommends adjusting sleeping arrangements to account for changing family situations. For example, it may not be appropriate for a 5-year-old girl to share a bed with her father during overnight stays after divorce. Healthy boundaries may become blurred when single parents share a bed with their opposite-sex child, says therapist Janice G. Tracht in the article "Should Children Sleep With Their Parents" for "Associated Counselors & Therapists." (ref 10). There is a danger that a child's sexual identity may become confused, through no fault of the parent, warns Tracht. For example, a young girl may become aware of her father's erection while he is sleeping.