THE FAMILY BED: Facts, Fiction and Feelings

In many parts of the world, co-sleeping (parents and children slumbering together) is the norm, and our policy of relegating baby to his own bed in a separate room is viewed as heartless and cruel. In Japan, for example, an infant sleeps with her mother until age five, when the child then shares a bed with a sibling or grandparent; in some African countries, infants, parents and older children sleep together on a reed mat.

In the United States, there are strong taboos against parents sleeping with kids, with most experts believing that the negative consequences far outweigh any possible advantages. Typical concerns center around interference with the marital relationship, the possibility of inappropriate sexual touching or over-stimulation, disruption of healthy sleep patterns, and predictions that co-sleeping could lead to later separation anxiety. Some people worry about the threat of suffocation or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), but statistics show that in urban societies such as Hong Kong and Israel, where the family bed is common, SIDS deaths are lower than in the U.S. or Canada, where babies generally sleep by themselves.

Lori Barrett, C.S.W., of High Hopes, a parent-child program in Bayside, Queens, believes that nighttime separation helps children develop an awareness of boundaries. Young children don't really know where these begin and end, she explains, and sleeping alone reinforces the concept of separateness, while also encouraging the development of self-soothing mechanisms. Barrett says the family bed can interfere with parental intimacy, and points out, "The marital bed is the last bastion of privacy." She emphasizes that nighttime is for sleeping, and maintains most children are given plenty of nurturing, tenderness and affection during waking hours, which should carry them through till morning. "Of course," she adds, "I'm not saying parents should never take a child into their bed. There's nothing as delicious as an early-morning cuddle with a cooing baby."


Pamela M. Zimmer, M.S., Ed. M., a psychospiritual therapist at The Human Relations Center for Women in Briarwood, holds a differing view. She believes that co-sleeping can be a wonderful way of fostering a sense of connectedness and intimacy, especially if it's incorporated into family life right from the beginning. Children learn to associate sleep with closeness and comfort rather than anxiety and abandonment, and, she says, "Bedtime should be a time of gentleness and affection, a time of unconditional love." By enhancing the development of "basic trust" at a young age, Zimmer believes the family bed can be helpful in the eventual acquisition of a sense of autonomy and self-reliance. She encourages parents to examine their own motivations when choosing a family co-sleeping situation, however, noting, "It doesn't work if it's done out of guilt or to avoid power struggles."

In her recent book, "The Vital Touch", developmental psychologist Sharon Heller, Ph.D., a proponent of the family bed, points out that, in spite of our taboos, surveys indicate that 25-30 percent of parents routinely sleep with their children for at least part of the night. She urges parents to do what feels right to them, saying, "For those parents who wish to co-sleep, there is nothing unnatural or dangerous about bedding with baby. Few of us adults, given the choice, would opt to sleep alone. Why, then, should a tiny baby?"