I haven’t had kids in my bed for several years now. But this wasn’t always the case. I remember the days when my bed was full of people of all different sizes. And I was perfectly happy with that.
I always intended to have my babies in my room. That just made sense to me. I never specifically intended for any of my kids to end up in my bed. But as I became more experienced and more educated on the science of my infants’ development, I welcomed them next to me at night*. I’m more than a little surprised this has continued to be an ongoing debate. Here’s why:
Despite any controversies over where baby should sleep, there is a huge body of research on brain development. Your child’s brain, during the first year of life, is described by science as being “experience-dependent.” What that means is that your child will develop only those pathways that are utilized and discard the rest. Not only are you responsible for providing the experiences you want your child to have, but your child is entirely dependent upon you for the quality and quantity of those experiences.
If science is to be trusted in this, then what experiences do you want to shape your child’s brain?
Here is this new human, unable to communicate using language, fully dependent upon caregivers to meet his needs and just having entered the world. What lessons would you want to teach him about himself, you and life during those early months?
I wanted to teach at least the following:
- I am in a safe world. It is good.
- I can communicate. When I speak, I am heard.
- I am valid. My needs matter.
- I am loved.
- I am connected. I am not alone.
- I am good.
- I can do it. When I try, I succeed.
I not only thought about what I wanted my children to learn, but how I would feel, if I were in their place?
So, when it comes to nighttime nurturing, why, all of a sudden, would his needs suddenly stop? Mine don’t. If I wake up scared, thirsty, hungry or in pain, not only do I have the comfort of my partner lying next to me, but I also have the ability to get up and make myself feel better. I know I can wake up my partner and he will hug me. Imagine how upset I would be if he ignored me or told me, “You really need to figure out how to make yourself feel better and go back to sleep! You’re being too dependent!”
If I want comfort when I’m scared or lonely, want someone next to me at night, want to eat when I am hungry and want to drink when I am thirsty, then why in the world would I expect a brand new little human, with no resources, to spend his night all alone with no assistance from me? It seems patently unfair.
Science supports the concept of around-the-clock responsiveness. The infant learns to “self-soothe” from interacting with his caregiver when he has a problem. If he is left alone to deal with it, he learns nothing at all. Or perhaps a lesson not intended: When I ask for help, no help comes, so I give up. The stress he experiences can create serious problems for him as well. He needs you when he needs you!
We are very concerned with creating independent children in Western societies. But often, it seems, we are unsure how and when to do this. For me, I followed the guidance of science and my instincts.
You should most certainly require of your child that which he is capable. But never that which he is not. An infant is simply not capable of meeting his own needs. He has not developed the capacity to do so and requires consistent parental input and assistance to achieve the ability to regulate emotion.
So why are we still debating this issue of co-sleeping? Human beings are social creatures. Would you kick your partner out of your bed because you were afraid of becoming too dependent on each other? Why are we so insistent that immature little humans spend their nights alone? And with science that details the development of the human brain supporting consistent, warm and appropriate responsiveness to infant needs, how is this still a question?
Meeting a child’s needs is precisely what creates an independent child. When your child needs you, be there. When your child is able to act on their own, allow them to do so. My oldest son was sleeping in a nursery, adjacent to my room at age 4 and at the same age, making his own breakfast and learning to read.
Children develop along a continuum. Our job as parents is to support their development. But keep in mind the science behind your child’s growth. The brain is not done growing and developing until the early-20’s. They will vacillate between dependence and independence for two decades. Instead of pushing them too far, too fast, we should provide a safety net as they take their own steps toward standing on their own.
Now, as with all parenting choices, where baby sleeps at night is a choice. I think we, as parents, should feel free to make the choices that feel right to us, without judgment or condemnation and without taking sides. There are great reasons for each of us to make the choices we do. Including, but not limited to, keeping our children nearby at night.
*If you choose to bed-share, please do research on safety issues relating to this practice first. There are risks to baby’s health and life if not practiced properly. Never sleep with an infant on a sofa or while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.