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Tips for Successful Family Beds

By Anna Stewart

Bob Wham wakes to his wife Ceal and young son Gabriel snuggled between them. He looks at Ceal. “This is the way it was meant to be,” he whispers.

Sharing your bed with your children is by no means a new idea. In fact, most families worldwide sleep with their children. And if you’re one of the families whose young children sleep with you through choice, habit or when they are sick, there are things you can do to make your family bed a successful arrangement for everyone.

Safety first
All babies, no matter where they sleep, need to be kept safe. Researchers have demonstrated that more babies die alone in their cribs then in family beds. And most of those deaths occur because of unsafe beds and bedding or sleeping with adults impaired from drugs or alcohol. SIDS rarely occurs to an infant sleeping with their parents.

In order to make sure your bed is safe, remember to:

Put your baby on his or her back to sleep.
Avoid soft or loose bedding (such as down comforters) around your baby’s head.
Use a firm mattress. Waterbeds are not safe for babies.
Make sure the baby cannot fall or get trapped between beds and walls.
Do not use pillows for babies.

One mattress or two?
There are many ways to create bed arrangements to make everyone happy. Some families put mattresses or futons on the floor so no one falls out. Others create sidecars or have multiple beds in the same room. Here are some ideas:

Use a queen or king-sized bed. One baby and two adults can sleep together in a queen bed for a long time, but eventually one or both adults may want more room, especially if they have a kicky toddler. Try a king-sized bed.
Try a “queen plus” -- put a second mattress next to the queen. Depending on how big your bedroom is, you could add another twin bed or futon. If you want your baby close but not in your bed, you can put a crib with one side down against your bed or use a bassinet.
While many parents want their infant to sleep with them, they may not want a squirming toddler in the bed. One solution is to set up a toddler bed in the parents’ bedroom.
When you have more kids, you also have more sleeping options; many young kids will happily sleep with a sibling in their own room. You can have them share a double bed or have twin beds near each other. Everyone likes to feel connected, even at night. Infants should not sleep with toddlers, though.
Musical beds. Many a parent has put their young child to bed in their own room, only to have the crawl in with mom and dad in the middle of the night. If you’re not used to sleeping together, it may not be a restful night. The non-nursing parent may go and sleep elsewhere, a decision that needs to be addressed if it happens frequently.

Family agreements
It’s important for all family members to agree with the realities of family beds. It’s often mothers who want to keep their babies in bed — for ease of nursing and for the peace of mind. If your husband or partner doesn’t agree, it can cause a lot of resentment. Check in with each other on a regular basis and brainstorm options that work for everyone.

One strategy is to re-evaluate how it’s all working when your baby reaches major milestones such as eating solid foods, walking, weaning or reducing the number of daytime naps. Some kids need their parents more at night as they learn more independence in the day, and others don’t. Each family has to figure out what works for them -- there’s no one right way.

It helps to remember that most of us like sleeping with someone else. Our children, especially our babies, want the same. “It takes only the most elementary observation to see that a baby needs its mother even more during the night than during the day, and even more in the dark than in daylight,” writes Michel Odent in his book Primal Health. “In the dark, the baby’s predominant sense -- sight -- is at rest. Instead, the baby needs to use its sense of touch through skin-to-skin contact and its sense of smell.”

As you figure out what works for you, keep all family members needs in mind.

Night nursing
“ The initial impetus [for having a family bed] was nursing. It’s so easy to nurse in bed. I never had to get up. I didn’t worry about him breathing or being warm enough. He was right there,” says Ceal Ruffing, mother to Gabriel, age 2.

Nursing mothers all over the world sleep with their babies. Researchers James J. McKenna, director of the Center for Behavioral Studies of Mother-Infant Sleep, collaborated with neurologist Sarah Mosko of the University of California Irvine School of Medicine for 15 years on a series of experiments looking into what happens physiologically when babies sleep with their mothers instead of alone.

They found that while breastfed babies who sleep with their mothers do nurse more often than those babies sleeping in a separate room, they considered this a benefit. In additions to providing antibodies, breastfed babies have more rapid and complete cognitive development.

They also discovered that mothers who sleep with their babies get more sleep than those mothers who keep their babies in separate rooms, dispelling a common myth about night nursing.

To make night nursing easy, set up a diaper changing station next to the bed along with a low lighting option so you can change diapers while your still in bed. Remember to keep a towel or blanket so you keep the bedding clean and use disposal hand wipes to keep your hands clean.

The reasons why families choose family beds varies. Margaret Riedel says for her and her husband, “It just felt natural to us. I don’t let my baby cry or fuss. Ian wakes up happy. He rarely cries. He doesn’t have to.”

How long to keep your baby in bed is another issue. Most mothers I spoke with had no timeline. “The most important thing,” said Ruffing, “is that it has to take both parents and baby into account. It’s different for every person.”

Some children who have made the switch to their own bed still come back periodically. They need to know they are welcome, especially if a new baby joins the family. It is not a sign of dependency but of security. Offer a child security, and he will grow up to be secure. Offer a child the warmth and love of your arms both day and night, and she will grow up to be loving and warm.

© Anna Stewart

Anna Stewart, B.A., C.M.T., C.H.T., mothers three young children, one with special needs. In her classes, workshops and services, she weaves her expertise as a professional writer, creative artist and student of rhythm dance. Anna offers a number of classes in the Boulder, Colorado, area. She can be reached at (303) 499-7681, [email protected] or see her web site at


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