July 18th, 2011
12:01 AM ET
Is it harmful to your child's development to have your toddler sleep with you? Experts can't seem to agree on whether it’s a good thing or bad but a new study finds that it may not be harmful to children as long as the child is at least a year old.
It’s called bed-sharing, where parents and a child sleep in the same bed. It's not as common in the United States as in other countries, but it's more prevalent among certain ethnic groups.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it's not advised for parents to ever sleep with infants before the age of 6 months. That's the time when babies are most at risk for sudden infant death syndrome. But the study authors and the AAP agree that once a child is 12 months old , co-sleeping or bed-sharing with parents is really up to the preference of the family. However, the goal for any sleep arrangement is to get safe, adequate sleep. If bed-sharing is getting in the way of a good night's sleep or is dangerous in any way for your child, then it's not a good idea.
"When you compare mothers of the same ethnicity and the same levels of education, whether they bed-share or not, does not predict a difference in cognitive or behavioral outcomes in their children," explains study author Lauren Hale, Ph.D., associate professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.
Hale and other researchers measured math, early literacy and social skills in the children. They even looked at levels of hyperactivity and found no cognitive or social differences between children who bed-shared and those who did not.
"There are a number of reasons why parents decide to share a bed with their children such as safety, security, to facilitate breast-feeding, in response to sleeping problems, to provide emotional support, living conditions, etc. Understanding those reasons can provide clues to the outcomes of bed-sharing on children's later behavior and cognition,” Dr. Lynne Haverkos with the National Institutes of Health, the organization that funded the study.
Experts agree that what's most important, is that everybody gets a good night's sleep. For some families bed-sharing disrupts both the parents' and the child's sleep. For others it works well.
"If a family is going to bed-share, both parents must agree to it," explains Brett Kuhn, associate professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. "Make sure it's planned and intentional and that you do it from the beginning of the night to the end of the night. You're not going to play musical beds when the child fusses."
Bringing a child into your bed to stop repeated episodes of crying may not only interrupt parental sleep but interfere in the child's ability to soothe himself to sleep.
Haverkos says more studies are needed to look more closely at the risks and benefits of bed-sharing, but that the best bet is to discuss the issue with your pediatrician or health care provider. What qualifies as a safe and satisfying sleep arrangement for one family may not be the same for another.
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