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Who’s Sleeping in My Bed?

By Kelley Shirazi

How can you expect to hold onto them in life if you begin by pushing them away? -- Verna Mae Sloan, Appalachian mother and grandmother

This generation of mothers labors under (the) dubious pronouncement that babies sleep best in isolation. Every infant knows better. His protest at nocturnal solitude contains the wisdom of millennia.
--Thomas Lewis, M.D., A General Theory of Love

Infant and child sleep theories are among the most controversial subjects new parents face. In Western culture, it’s widely taught to “sleep teach” your children by placing them in a separate bed and even a separate room, so that they’ll learn to sleep on their own.

Let’s look at the Western cultural paradigm that teaches child/parent separation. What is the current condition of the “nuclear family”? Before the West was industrialized, way back in the beginnings of human culture we lived communally, in a collectivistic manner (in which the needs of the group are considered to be more important than the needs of the individual). Interdependence was tantamount to survival, and we were surrounded by extended family and community.

It wasn’t until about 200 years ago that a few cultures began to construct dwellings with more than one room. The majority of people around the world today still live in one-room dwellings where all activities take place.1 It is important to note that the West stands out in its treatment of children during sleep, with the United States specifically being the only society in which babies and children are consistently put to sleep in their own beds and in separate rooms.2

Why is there such an emphasis on individuation in the United States? That can be a complicated question, taking into account everything from capitalism to the breakup of extended families and the advent of single-family dwellings.

There is a strong emphasis on convenience in American culture. Let’s face it, we’re a fast food society. We want everything quick and easy -- and frankly, children are not convenient, nor are they meant to be. Americans also have a hard time differentiating between need and habit, with the notion of a “bad” habit being all things ultimately inconvenient.

Distinguishing need from habit

It is not in the nature of nature to provide organisms with biological tendencies unless such tendencies have survival value. -- Lee Salk

The wants of a well-adjusted human being are his needs. It is when those needs are not fulfilled that his wants become excessive and overbearing.3 In addition to our basic physical needs, we all have the need to be touched and loved.4

The emphasis here goes back again to a fundamental tenet of attachment parenting: attunement (see The Science of Attachment). An attuned child is going to be a well-adjusted child. A well-adjusted child is one whose needs are honored and respected. If a child wants to sleep with his parents or siblings, he needs to sleep with them. If these needs are denied, the child is not being treated with respect. He’s being treated as an inconvenience.

From a biological point of view, we need to remember that infants need constant attention and care, since they are unable to take care of themselves. Unlike other mammals, they cannot regulate their body temperature, move around on their own or feed themselves.

It is this helplessness that forms part of the basis for sleep sharing. Sleep is controlled by the primitive brain stem, requiring messages to be sent from the brain to the heart, lungs, diaphragm, ribs and hormone-producing organs.5 In sleep, adults shift through periods of controlled neocortical-driven breaths. While adults can manage these shifts in breathing, infants (with their neurologically immature brains) cannot manage these transitions so easily. Sleeping next to a parent, an infant is able to essentially mirror that parent’s sleep transitions, including breathing changes that are entwined through various levels of sleep.6 These facts lead to the assumption that it’s both natural to co-sleep with an infant as well as actually safer, in that it helps teach an infant how to sleep and breathe on his own.

Trust in what works for you and your child
There’s very little support or encouragement for parents who want to trust their children. We are told when feed them solids, when to potty train them, when to wean them. Western parents are encouraged to create a nighttime ritual to get their babies and children to sleep, with lullabies, a bath, a bottle, a story.

Conversely, sleep sharing allows children to truly fall asleep on their own, providing them with the comfort and security they need to feel safe at night without all the props used in sleep teaching. And if we learn to trust our children, we may find that they make these transitions on their own, when they are ready.

1, 2, 5, 6 “Sleep with Me: A Trans-cultural Look at the Power—and Protection—of Sharing a Bed,” Mothering magazine, Issue 91, November/December 1998; excerpted from “Our Babies, Ourselves,” Meredith F. Small (Anchor Books, 1998)

3 “Need vs. Habit,” Tine Thevenin, The Natural Child Project.

4 “Touching,” Ashley Montagu (Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 289

Kelley Shirazi’s interest in natural health and nutrition started in college, when she studied herbology and holistic health along with her women’s studies major. See more about Kelley.


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"The media have become the mainstream culture in children's lives. Parents have become the alternative. Americans once expected parents to raise their children in accordance with the dominant cultural messages. Today they are expected to raise their children in opposition to it."
-- Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe columnist

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