Parents who share a bed with their child can sleep better in light of new research in the journal Pediatrics that finds the practice doesn’t give rise to learning or behavior problems.
Researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University asked 944 low-income mothers where their child slept regularly — defined as five of seven nights — and looked for an association between between kids who slept with their mom at ages 1, 2 or 3 and behavior or learning problems at age 5. Initially, they discovered that bed-sharing was linked to lower scores on cognitive outcomes and some behavioral problems. But after controlling for socioeconomic status and race, the association vanished. In other words, any association between bed-sharing and behavioral or learning problems can be attributed not to the sleeping arrangements but more likely to socioeconomic status or race.
“It’s safe to say it’s probably going to be okay,” says Gabriela Barajas, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at Teachers College who researches parenting practices.
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When it comes to kids and sleep, bed-sharing is a lifestyle choice with its proponents and opponents. But co-sleeping, common in many areas of the world including Asia and Africa, is fairly unusual in the U.S., where children start sleeping in their own rooms at early ages.
In general, the advice about whether or not to bed-share isn’t consistent. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against the practice during infancy because of concerns it could contribute to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). In a review of 40 or so parenting books that Barajas consulted, the consensus was that there wasn’t one. “Some said bed-sharing is good and some said, Do not bedshare,” says Barajas. “It was mixed advice. There’s not a lot of information in general about whether it’s good or bad.”
In 2007, Tara Parker-Pope wrote in The New York Times about sleeping with her daughter and about the embarrassment many parents feel about admitting they do the same:
Ask parents if they sleep with their kids, and most will say no. But there is evidence that the prevalence of bed sharing is far greater than reported. Many parents are “closet co-sleepers,” fearful of disapproval if anyone finds out, notes James J. McKenna, professor of anthropology and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.
“They’re tired of being censured or criticized,” Dr. McKenna said. “It’s not just that their babies are being judged negatively for not being a good baby compared to the baby who sleeps by himself, but they’re being judged badly for having these babies and being needy.
The Teachers College researchers didn’t examine why parents chose to co-sleep with their children. Was it a philosophical decision? Did bed-sharing lead to sleep problems for mom or marital turmoil? There’s not much research out there about bed-sharing, although you have to look no further than the runaway success of faux children’s book Go the F**k to Sleep to confirm that kids and slumber is a topic that resonates with parents.
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And what do the studies that do exist tell us about being a parent and nighttime slumber? For one, working mothers get up way more than fathers in the middle of the night to tend to nighttime crises. Another study, also from Pediatrics, found that most babies sleep through the night by three months. In October, I wrote about that research and my own unsolicited experiences with bed-sharing, on nights when my youngest daughter climbs into bed with me and my husband.
No promised cache of jellybeans or special pair of pink panda tights has persuaded her to spend more than the occasional full night in her own bed. “I had a bad dweam,” she announced sometime in the haze of last night’s slumber, clambering over me to insinuate her Dora the Explorer nightgown-clad body between my husband and me. We’re too tired to take her back, and so the pattern continues.
And now, thanks to Barajas, we won’t have to feel so guilty about it.
Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.