THE RISE OF THE Family Bed
‘I used to think it was just me….,” confesses Caitlin over her second glass of wine. They are out on a rare girls night to take a break – in the nicest possible way- from their husbands and children– paradoxically the conversation has turned to….husbands and children….. and specifically the issue of sleep, or more precisely ‘the family bed!’
Caitlin admits that her 4 year old regularly curls up all night between her and her husband; Amelie’s husband, resigned to a nocturnal game of ‘musical beds’, often gives up and sleeps in the spare bedroom leaving her with the children– and although she is (technically) in the marital bed, Alice is in reality sandwiched in a 12 inch wide strip between her husband, her children (6 and 8), and the family dog who recognizes a chance when he sees one!
A cursory trawl of the internet confirms that they are a few of many parents, and celebrities, including Angelia Jolie and Kourtney Kardashian, who sleep with their older children for all or part of the night- some by choice- having fully embraced ‘attachment parenting’ – others by circumstance, having found themselves unwittingly in this position and at a loss how to break the pattern.
Experts refer to parents who haven’t actively chosen to share a bed with their children, but who are nevertheless doing it, as ‘reactive co sleepers’- they are doing this in effect because it’s ‘the only way’ for everyone to get some sleep. ‘Behavioural insomnia’ is a relatively new term appearing in medical literature to describe the estimated 20-30 percent of children who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep- it’s the most common sleep disorder, overtaking sleep apnea and night terrors, and according to some psychologists, it is becoming an epidemic! Childhood anxiety levels are on the increase, children are often ‘overscheduled”, and subjected to intense academic pressure-and overworked, overtired, stressed parents- desperate for sleep themselves- may simply find it easier let older children climb into bed with them so that everyone can get some sleep!
And then there is a different subset of parents who have made co sleeping with their older children, a positive philosophical choice.
Although co sleeping with infants under the age of 6 months, is extremely well researched, documented and openly debated, many parents are reluctant to talk about co sleeping with older children in terms of how it may be negatively construed- it brings up all kinds of difficult questions about their sex lives; parenting style , and the moral debate about children’s sleep habits- the implication being that if children are not sleeping in their own beds, the parenting style is somehow flawed.
Conversely, co sleeping with older children is the cultural norm in many parts of the world, for example in India– where one study reported that over 90 per cent of children share a bed with their parents even when a spare room is available. In Japan it is common even in affluent families for children up to the age of 10, or even into adolescence, to sleep with their parents- not as a consequence of lack of space-but as a conscious parenting decision– Whereas many Western parents view a child’s sleeping in his own bed as a crucial milestone towards independence, the Japanese philosophy , in contrast, is on developing closeness and security to help children become more confident and able longer term.
Even though it is certainly less prevalent in Western society– which places greater importance on developing individualism–anecdotally at least it appears to be far more widespread than we may imagine. When I started to ask about co sleeping (beyond infancy) a surprising number of parents (often mothers – who seem more tolerant of sharing a bed with the children than fathers) admitted that they happily co slept with their older children . It could be argued that it is natural, after all it is a primal instinct for mammals to sleep with their offspring.
Alice is adamant that allowing the children to sleep in the parental bed gives them all a sense of security,
“It’s a way achieving closeness and family bonding – we are all running around in the day at work and school, time together is limited, so it’s an easy way to be together. I don’t worry about them growing up clingy, they are happy and confident precisely because they are secure- I know that one day they will grow out of it and that’s fine, but it will be them not me who decides when that time should be. It doesn’t negatively impact on my relationship with my husband –intimacy is not just about sex– and we can easily find other opportunities to be together.”
However, for others it smacks of over indulgent parenting. and then there is the effect on parents when children literally come between them. Amelie, who falls into the category of ‘reactive co sleeper’ says
“I regret letting the children sleep in our bed, in the beginning it was easier than getting up in the night, but the children have got used to it and they have got bigger so they take up more space. Even though they start off in their own beds, they invariably end up sprawled in our bed at some point during the night, I often wake up exhausted, and my husband frequently gets out of bed to sleep in the spare room just to get some rest. So what started out as a mechanism to get some sleep now has the opposite result.”
Others like Sara and Matt have adopted a middle ground with ‘family sleeps’ on weekends,
“The children know the ground rules and easily adapt back to their own beds, we feel that it’s a good balance between developing independence and giving them security, “I love the fact that we are all cozied up together,” says Sara, sometimes I wake up in the night in a tangle of limbs and if I could bottle that moment I would- its priceless, and no parenting guru is going to tell me otherwise!”
If you haven’t done so already, you will inevitably make your own decision about whether (or to what extent) you want to allow your older children into your bed.
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice… and so to bed…” to sleep, perchance to dream!”