Parents are co-sleeping with their children more than they admit

June 07, 2017
Many parents know that sleeping in the same bed with their young children is not a good idea, and yet they do it anyway. They just aren’t admitting it.

According to a recent study, about half of parents who co-sleep with their children lie about it because they’re afraid of "mom shaming.” 

Susan Stewart, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University, discovered that 50 percent of the parents she studied were keeping their co-sleeping habits a secret from friends, family and even their child’s pediatrician. Stewart compiled this research in her new book, “Co-Sleeping: Parents, Children and Musical Beds,” which reveals that many parents sleep with their children well beyond the toddler years, sometimes even up to age 13.

Parents share a sleep surface with their children – such as the same bed, sofa or mattress – for a variety of reasons. They may want to snuggle with their youngsters, or their children sneak into their bed in the middle of the night. Or, they simply doze off with the children from sheer exhaustion.

Among parenting topics, co-sleeping is one of the most controversial. Opinions vary widely about the physical and psychological factors of the practice, and Stewart found that co-sleeping parents were hiding their sleeping habits primarily to avoid judgment. But depending on the circumstances – particularly, the child's age – Stewart contends that parents don't have to be ashamed of co-sleeping. It's just not a good idea to do so with infants.

With babies, sharing a sleep surface is considered to be an unsafe practice. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explicitly discourages co-sleeping due to the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). They do, however, recommend that babies sleep in the same room as their parents, which has been found to reduce the risk of SIDS by 50 percent during a child’s first year of life.

Despite these recommendations, and pressure from other people, many parents still sleep with their babies – primarily because of the sleep deprivation that typically accompanies having an infant in the home. Breast-feeding moms, in particular, may be more likely to co-sleep with their babies, because it’s easier to feed or soothe babies when they’re already lying by their side. Pediatricians recommend that parents keep babies in a separate crib nearby, and to avoid the temptation to keep them in their own bed.

In her conversations with parents, Stewart learned that they felt a lot of pressure to raise “a perfect child.” On the one hand, friends, family members, and pediatricians are telling them that co-sleeping is harmful to children, and can even make children spoiled and needy. On the other hand, “Parents are exhausted, they’re stressed and honestly, it’s often easier to co-sleep,” Stewart observes. “There’s no one-size-fits-all, and in my view; there is no right or wrong.”

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of judgment and, in general, very little support for parents,” Stewart adds. “In American society, there is a great deal of competition among parents, which is why many families hide the fact that they co-sleep.”

And despite what well-meaning friends may think, bed sharing with older children doesn’t make them overly dependent or spoiled. The AAP studies show that children who co-sleep with their parents are no more likely to have cognitive or behavioral problems than children who sleep alone. Stewart agrees and points out that small children who co-sleep can grow up to feel more secure and attached to their parents.

Because co-sleeping is still frowned upon by many people, parents continue to receive a lot of criticism about it, even though it’s their own personal parenting choice. “The parents in my study felt so guilty because they worried that they were putting their children at risk,” says Stewart, who thinks that this shaming only perpetuates more parenting guilt. "Everyone is telling you how to parent, but not supporting your parenting decisions. This judgment makes mothers feel like they are not good enough." 

Stewart hopes to help push back on this stigma by providing support for co-sleeping parents in her research. When it comes to co-sleeping, she wants people to know it isn't inherently wrong or shameful. As long as people are aware of the safety guidelines and do their research, they should be well-equipped to make informed choices about their own families. And they should be able to raise happy, healthy children – and not feel they have to lie about it.

If you have questions or concerns about your baby, you can find a doctor who can help you in our provider directory. If you have any tips on co-sleeping safely, share in a comment below.