During the last decades, an increased interest in co-sleeping has been noted. It seems to be an important phenomenon because it is connected with the social experiences in infancy . It is also linked with researches which illustrate the importance of considering the physical and social environment of the infant beyond sleep surfaces. For instance, concerning the physical environment, Burnham in 2000s noted that brightness of the light during the sleep influences circadian rhythms in very young infants and has an effect in their development. Moving from the physical to the social environment, the concern of co-sleeping is becoming increasingly important. Something else which makes the interest of co-sleeping very important is the fact that many studies show that parent - child co-sleeping is associated with sleep problems. Most of the sleeping problems include difficulties in falling asleep and waking up during the sleep. These difficulties concern behavioral or social and not medical problems.
In early 2000s we find a very simple definition of co-sleeping which defines it as the practice of parents and children sharing the same bed or the same room. A more thorough definition was formed a few years later by McKenna and Volpe (2007) who identified that co-sleeping is “the presence of at least one sober, committed adult caregiver who sleeps within close enough proximity of the infant to permit the exchange of at least two sensory stimuli (touch, smell, movement, sight, and/or sound)” (p. 360). Goldberg and Keller (2007) referring to the terminology of co-sleeping note that this is a broader rubric which contains not only bed sharing but also room sharing and around this topic there is an intense debate among the psychological, anthropological and pediatric researches. This is the reason that makes co-sleeping a very controversial subject. So from the definitions and terminology it appears that there is a complexity around this topic and scientists from different disciplines deal with co-sleeping. Finally, does co-sleeping mean only bed sharing between parents and infants or children? Furthermore, when infants or children share the same room with their siblings, then are they considered as co-sleepers?
According to the definition, we understand that although co-sleeping is often used synonymously with bed sharing, includes room sharing too, as well as the arrangement of having a sleep unit placed close to the parental bed. So bed sharing might be a type of co-sleeping.
Moreover, how could we define the solitary sleeping? Does it mean that children sleep alone in their own bedroom and their own bed or simply sleep separately from the parent? There are cases also that children share their room with their siblings. This case in which children share their room with one or more siblings gives a very different social experience for their development, compared to other children who sleep completely alone in their own room.
There is a category which should be differentiated from full night co-sleeping, making the issue even more complicated, and refers to part night co-sleeping. Part – night co-sleeping involves parents who might allow their infants to fall asleep in the parental bed and then move them in their bed after they are deeply asleep or parents who might allow their children to sleep alone in their bed and after a night waking they take them in the adult bed. Here we see parents who may believe that their infants or children could sleep alone in their own bed or bedroom, but in order to calm them during a restless sleep or after a night waking prefer to continue their sleep with co-sleeping. This is perhaps a positive example of co-sleeping, because infants or children calm down with this habit. Part night co-sleeping is also the case when parents and infants or children start sleeping together on sofas or other non-bed surfaces and then parents move them to their own bed to continue their sleep. This is more associated with cultural behaviors and habits.
Another subgroup of co-sleeping is reactive co-sleeping. This refers to children who want to co-sleep because their parents prefer separate sleep and can’t sleep alone easily. These children start to share or return to this habit as toddlers or preschoolers. It seems that these families co-sleep in response to existing sleep problems. Reactive co-sleepers are at a very high risk to establish problematic sleep behaviors. Their parents are usually bothered by their children’s sleep behavior and they share bed or sleep place with them even though they would prefer not to do. On the other hand, there are parents who choose this habit for personal or cultural reasons. Madansky and Edelbrock (1990) referred to this group of co-sleepers in 1990s calling them intentional co-sleepers. Although these parents don’t find co-sleeping as problematic or inconvenient, because they have grown up in a cultural environment where this practice is common, it seems to score similarly on problematic sleep behaviors. So examining the topic of co-sleeping, could we connect it with cultural beliefs and different views from all over the world?
There are many studies which connect the cultural issues with the parental choices to share their bed with their children. This is a fact because cultural beliefs influence parents to have different views upon bed sharing. For example, co-sleeping is very normal and not a problem for Swedish parents or in Sami families in the polar region of Norway. It seems generally that co-sleeping in Western cultures is becoming a common phenomenon. For instance, undocumented sources report that in Greece older people advise the younger parents to co-sleep with their infants in order to have a quiet sleep. Moreover, in Asian cultures, it is common and regular for mothers and infants to sleep together but for fathers it’s not something common . Japanese parents also tend to co-sleep with their children more than three nights every week and their children didn’t have sleep problems in early childhood. In contrast, American parents tend to co-sleep less with their children. Their children seem to experience stressful sleep problems and night waking when they grow up. This is a very good example to argue in favour of co-sleeping, recognizing the positive effect.
Co-sleeping could also be associated with socioeconomic factors. For example there are families with low socioeconomic status who have small houses and there is lack of available rooms for children to sleep alone. In these cases there isn’t a choice and sleeping problems may have other causes such as insufficient in the house. In African American families it was found that these socioeconomic factors were responsible for the fact that parents co-sleep with their children.
Co-sleeping in all above cases can be dyadic or triadic. Dyadic co-sleeping involves mostly mothers and their infants. Triadic co-sleeping takes place when both mother and father share their bed with the infant. Dyadic co-sleeping seems to be more common and is connected with the night care during night sleep. In contrast, triadic co-sleeping seems to be less common than dyadic. Fathers in these cases are usually afraid that they would strangle their infants during their own sleep.
Among the benefits we can surely recognise that co-sleeping reinforces breastfeeding and maternal monitoring. Furthermore, the infant tends to take a certain sleeping position that may lower the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Okami, Weisner, and Olmstead (2002) in an eighteen year longitudinal study, proved that co-sleeping does not result in sleep disturbances, psychosexually troubled relationships in later childhood and adolescence, behavior problems and difficulties in peer or personal relationships. If we encourage parents to follow co-sleeping practices, a question arises: how long should such a routine last? And what happens when transitioning the child to his own bed? McKenna and Volpe suggest that co-sleeping couldn’t be more than three years. But could it be generalised, when we talk about different types of co-sleeping, or families with different habits?
On the other hand, co-sleeping is a very important early-life experience for infants, and there are studies which show that it has provable consequences for their neuro-behavioral development as well as evidence that children can learn appropriate sleep behaviors. Researchers cite concerns that children who share their parents’ bed are likely to develop irregular psychological dependency, psychosexual disorientation and intense sleeping problems. However, although many researches have aimed to prove this, there isn’t any significant scientific evidence for this concern.
As for the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) although co-sleeping between a parent and an infant seems to increase of the risk for SIDS, research shows that this increase is not significant. More dangerous, says the same research, is co-sleeping between the infant and other children such as siblings.
Solitary sleeping in infants raised the odds of their using comfort objects to a significant degree compared to co-sleepers. The same findings are also supported by other studies which reported that the majority of solitary sleepers used soothing practices to fall asleep, like a sleep aid object or thumb-sucking. Children who sleep separately from their parents may be more likely to be offered (and thus become more easily attached to) a transitional object, whereas this is not considered necessary for co-sleepers. The use of such objects may be a corollary of the standard Western sleep approach that discourages children from parental bed and room sharing and promotes sleeping in a separate room as a habit ideally established early in the infant’s life. On the other hand parents might use their infants as a security object. Perhaps, with co-sleeping, a dependence relationship between the infant and the parent is likely to be established. For some researchers this possibility is well-grounded according to the attachment theory. So, in this case, who uses whom (as a security or comfort object)? If parents use co-sleeping for their needs, might this be a kind of abuse for infants?
Examining the physical maturity of infants we find that the central nervous system mechanisms that coordinate the sleeping and waking activity of the brain develop progressively from infancy to early childhood. So what is the impact of co-sleeping in the development of that mechanism? During the first two years, infants’ ability to sleep through the night increases, while night wakings are gradually reduced in duration and number. A number of studies speculate that excessive mother contact through bed-sharing would have impact on the development of human biorhythms, i.e. impact diurnal rhythmicity. Researchers found that the sleep-wake cycles of co-sleeping infants registered more vigorous rhythms than those observed in solitary sleepers. Additionally measurements of arousability threshold and heart rate varied in solitary sleepers and co-sleepers, proposing the idea that bed sharing activates a physiological response in the infant.
Despite of concerns for negative effects of co-sleeping (especially in older researches), it seems that numerous pediatricians and authors of parenting books as well as psychologists and other scientists promote co-sleeping nowadays simply as the natural thing to do. We understand that specialists’ views concerning the possible positive or negative effects of co-sleeping, vary greatly.
Indeed, social and even technological changes are in many ways connected with changes in sleeping habits, facilities and practices for families. Because parents want to do the best for their children, they usually follow the handbooks’ advice or the tips of specialists. But what they often forget is to follow their own instinct. In addition, many parents feel so unsupported in their choice to co-sleep with their infants or their children, that avoid sharing the parental bed with them. Also, there are parents who avoid to discuss their decision (to co-sleep) with doctors or psychologists. Perhaps this indicates that specialists are usually opposed to such practices and they don’t promote co-sleeping. Are the scientists’ arguments based on research findings or are simply affected by their personal beliefs? This is a question to be answered.
When we have parents or infants with special needs, then what should we advise these parents? And what happens in the case of parents or infants with hear impairments? These parents in order to overcome the fear of not being able to hear their infant’s cry, they choose to co-sleep, and perhaps this is the best choice they can make. The same could happen in cases of infants or children with certain types of disorders, such as autism. These families use co-sleeping to solve basic problems of control of night sleep.
Although there has been an increasing interest in co-sleeping the last decades from different disciplines, we don’t find a commonly accepted view which rejects or approves it. Exploring the studies we also don’t find a theory beyond co-sleeping. Could it be connected or included in more general theories like for example the attachment theory? Could perhaps the consequences of co-sleeping be connected with this theory?
It is also interesting to take a look at the methods used by researchers in order to examine the pros and cons of co-sleeping. They use interviews from parents and sometimes questionnaires, measuring sleeping habits or examining sleeping arrangements. But what happens when cultural beliefs influence sleeping habits as mentioned above? Some researchers use videos or recordings from sleeping infants and try to examine the quality of sleep in co-sleepers and solitary sleepers. This may have more clear results.
To conclude, why all this concern about co-sleeping? All this perplexity around the subject along with the struggle to precisely define what co-sleeping is, and the query whether its impact is beneficial or detrimental for the infant, child and adolescent, where does it lead? Our current impression is that researchers have adopted a more conciliatory stance. According to more recent studies, both pediatricians and child-experts who engage in systematic examination and evaluation of the latest findings concerning the subject, tend to view co-sleeping more positively than in the past. They accept its possible advantageous effects and debate upon the conditions under which its influence is potentially negative, as well. Counselors and related professionals required to offer feedback to parents regarding the pros and cons of co-sleeping, need to take all latest research findings into consideration, and be more flexible. It isn’t advisable that they discourage parents forbidding co-sleeping practices. Research itself has provided evidence for a number of benefits as well. Experts should take that into consideration. And research is, for that matter, addressed to practitioners. It is appropriate that they inform the parents equally about the possible advantages of co-sleeping, while at the same time warn about any potential negative aspects that such sleeping habits may have.
It is, after all, a parent’s choice...
Messinis Stavros, 2012
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