Ambivalence: New Research on Co-Sleeping in the United States

Adrienne Riegle, Ph.D., CFLE, Graduate of Sociology, Iowa State University
NCFR Report
Content Area
Internal Dynamics of Families
Family Health

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Adrienne Riegle

In Brief:

  • Family Science overlooks the “forgotten third” of parenting: sleep.

  • U.S. families are ambivalent about co-sleeping.

  • Bringing co-sleeping into the open will reduce the stigma and improve education for families.

 

Anyone with children—especially young ones—will tell you that parenting is a round-the-clock job. Yet most Family Science literature overlooks the “forgotten third” of parenting, that is, the approximately eight hours of “sleep” needed per day. More specifically, while many parents and children experience sleeping together in the same room (co-sleeping) or in the same bed (bedsharing), most scientific knowledge on the topic has been limited to medical perspectives (e.g., Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, 2016). Furthermore, while co-sleeping is widely practiced around the world (Dollberg, Shalev, & Chen, 2010; Tahhan, 2008), families in the U.S. are ambivalent about it (Stewart, 2017), and those who engage in co-sleeping often are hesitant to discuss their sleep arrangements outside trusted family and friends (Breus, 2013).

Reluctance to co-sleep (or to admit to co-sleeping) in the U.S. is contextualized by cultural factors such as medicalized decision making and stigmatized perceptions of parenting practices. Modern U.S. parenting is intensive, competitive, and individualized (Glass & Tabatsky, 2014). Additionally, U.S. family life involves social changes such as the vast entry of mothers into the workforce within the past century and increased pressure on parents to be solely responsible for raising successful children; this is in contrast to the more communal and “laissez-faire” parenting found in prior centuries and in some other cultures.

Furthermore, parents today are bombarded with messages hotly debating parenting concerns that were largely a given in previous generations. This is particularly true for medical and health-related issues (e.g., vaccinations, nutrition, breastfeeding). In the case of co-sleeping, for decades the American Academy of Pediatrics had warned against co-sleeping and bedsharing in particular, mainly for the associated risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). While this recommendation has recently been revised (Task Force on SIDS, 2016) to recommend that infants (younger than a year old) sleep in the same room but not the same bed as their parents, the cautionary messages about co-sleeping remain the dominant narrative from the medical and public health spheres. Moreover, U.S. families stigmatize co-sleeping as practiced by “hippie types” who strictly adhere to tenets of attachment parenting, such as breastfeeding beyond the toddler years and babywearing (Stewart, 2017). As the following research suggests, the reality of co-sleeping is quite different from these common misconceptions.

 

A New Study and Co-Sleeping Resource

Medical advice and stigmatized perceptions notwithstanding, many U.S. families do practice co-sleeping, yet it remains largely unstudied. In her new book Co-Sleeping: Parents, Children, and Musical Beds (2017), Dr. Susan Stewart provides a balanced approach to the sociological study of co-sleeping in the U.S. in response to this gap in the literature. I had the opportunity to assist with the interviews that became the basis for this book, and I learned firsthand that sleep within families quickly appeared to be as diverse as U.S. families themselves. Co-Sleeping addresses pertinent questions, such as why families in the U.S. are so different when it comes to co-sleeping, the logistics (who, what, where, and when) of co-sleeping among parents and children, parents’ perspectives and perceptions of co-sleeping in general and specifically within their own families, how they felt it affected their relationships, reactions from friends and family, and the future of co-sleeping. I share some of the findings here.

A reluctant co-sleeping mom summarized the feelings of many parents when she described this exchange with her husband after sleeping on a crib mattress on the floor next to her one-year-old:

[He] said, “Why don’t you just bring him into bed with us? He’ll be happier. We’ll be happier.” And I was like, “No, no! You know there’s a social stigma against it. Kids are supposed to sleep in their own room!”

All the parents in the book described at least some negative reactions from others about co-sleeping, but most were good natured about it, and the degree to which they felt they had to hide co-sleeping varied. For instance, one mother perceived social support from friends, which played into her attitude toward co-sleeping:

[They’ll] say, “My kids didn’t sleep at all at night” or “My kids never sleep at night” or whatever. With babies or newborns I always think, just bring them in your bed. I mean you can’t expect her to just be happy in her own bed by herself.

Whereas other parents explained that family and friends had warned them not to co-sleep:

I had a co-worker tell me, “Oh, I’d never let my child do that.” And it just kind of shut me up right there. You know the way she was saying it, it’s almost like it’s kind of judgmental—like, I’m going to look down on you.

Certainly, a family’s sleep experiences result from a combination of parent, child, and environmental factors, as the results indicated. In accord with the design of the study, we spoke with parents who co-slept with children ages 12 and under, expanding on prior work that focused on infants and young children. Data included interviews with 13 fathers, which is important because fathers are increasingly playing an active role in all aspects of parenting. The 51 total interviews for Co-Sleeping included parents from a variety of demographic categories. While most parents interviewed had children who were biological and resided in the home full-time, interviews also included parents of adopted or stepchildren and of children who lived elsewhere part of the time.

Findings revealed a range of co-sleeping practices, motivations, and attitudes. Whether families engaged in intentional co-sleeping as part of a particular parenting ideology or reactively in response to children’s sleep problems, their stories help create nuanced pictures of the realities of dynamic family life around the clock. Those who engaged in co-sleeping encompassed a range of parents from those who “believed” in co-sleeping as an intended family practice to those who did so because it happened to “work” for their family life, and parents who had seemingly tried everything and ended up co-sleeping as a “last resort.” 

 

What to Do About Co-Sleeping: Implications for Family Science and Family Professionals

Ultimately, while most U.S. families are cautious about co-sleeping—or ambivalent at least—it happens in many families and is likely underreported. By giving voice to this apparently common experience of co-sleeping among parents and children, the stigma associated with co-sleeping can be lessened. Decreased stigma begets increased openness around the practice, which can bolster support and compassion for families regardless of how they sleep. The research and stories in Co-Sleeping and other emerging work positions professionals like Family Life Educators (FLEs) to have informed conversations with parents, physicians, and other health professionals about the realities of sleep in the family context.

It is important to note that the majority of families in Co-Sleeping “slid” into it as opposed to intentionally setting out to co-sleep. The findings position family professionals to support parents in knowing that they are not alone in situations that they did not plan to experience. Furthermore, while many families had unplanned beginnings to their co-sleeping situations, many did not have clear plans about how exactly they would transition out of it. A few families had intentions to change their current situations, but most were uncertain about how best to attempt the transition. Clearly this is an area in which family professionals can accompany parents navigating dynamic family transitions.

In addition to the close look into the lives of co-sleeping parents and children, Co-Sleeping provides useful data for FLEs and other practitioners as they address relationship concerns of parents. Findings indicated that co-sleeping per se did not seem to negatively affect intimacy between partners but that the challenges of parenting in general extended to co-sleeping parents and their ability to maintain closeness. This research also adds to the Family Science literature in terms of social support available (or not) to families. Interviews revealed that parents were aware of the controversy surrounding co-sleeping in the U.S., and some parents felt added stress or anxiety of not being able to discuss their family lives fully with other family members, friends, or health professionals. However, consistent with previous research, it was more common in the present study for non-White and non-Native parents to feel supported in their co-sleeping. FLEs have a unique opportunity to bring culturally sensitive assistance to parents as they communicate with each other and with other professionals about what is happening within their family. All parents in the current study expressed drawbacks and benefits to engaging in co-sleeping. This book provides family professionals with necessary information to navigate yet another dynamic aspect of family life. Whether or not parents co-sleep, more frequent and scientifically informed discussions of the day-to-day and night-to-night realities of 24/7 parent–child relationships can position FLEs and other family professionals to better assist families with an often overlooked yet critically important aspect of intimate family life—sweet sleep.

 

References

Breus, M. J. (2013, October 23). Co-sleeping increases despite risks and recommendations. Psychology Today. Retrieved from www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sleep-newzzz/201310/co-sleeping-increases-despite-risks-and-recommendations

Dollberg, D., Shalev, O., & Chen, P. (2010). “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed!” Parental satisfaction associated with solitary and parent-child co-sleeping in Israeli families with young children, Early Child Development and Care, 180, 869–878.

Glass, G. S., & Tabatsky, D. (2014). The overparenting epidemic. New York: Skyhorse.

Stewart, S. D. (2017). Co-sleeping: Parents, children, and musical beds. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Tahhan, D. A. (2008). Depth and space in sleep: Intimacy, touch and the body in Japanese co-sleeping rituals. Body & Society, 14, 37–56.

American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. (2016). SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths: Updated 2016 recommendations for a safe infant sleeping environment. Pediatrics, 138, e20162938.

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