Young parents, especially exhausted moms, relish the moments when their children fall asleep in their arms. Ask any parent of teenage children. Those long-ago moments when their infant children rested against their chests, heavy with sleep, are among the most cherished memories of parenthood.
We spend a third of our lives asleep. Issues with children, parenting, and sleep are perennial topics of debate and changing best practice. And few topics raise more anxiety than the issue of the family bed: when and how do parents allow their children to sleep with them? Whether infant or toddler, most children take months and years learning how to soothe themselves well enough to fall asleep alone.
Renewed interest in the methods of attachment parenting and how and when we put our children down to sleep alone are argued endlessly at support groups, child and parent play dates, and on internet blogs and chats. And yet, every year we lose infants to suffocation while sleeping with their parent in bed. What’s a new parent to do? This is a short argument against the modern American family bed.
Those who argue for including infants, toddlers, and smaller children in their parents’ bed at night talk frequently of cultures, young and old, where children are nurtured in sleep at their parents’ side. These are the thousand generations that have lived in longhouses, rock-shelters, tents, huts, or pueblos. Family life is or was centered around the hearth.
These communities, tribes and clans may raise their children together, hunt, sew, worship, cook, and travel together. These families are woven into cultures that think more as a team and less as separate units; their roles, values, and behaviors sync with those around them in harmonious and continuous waves. Agrarian, nomadic, or communal, these families have very specific adult and child roles, and sleeping in the same space or together for warmth, safety, or nurture is integral to their lives.
In modern America, we have created a culture of interrelated nuclear families living in separate living spaces, whose work is often far removed from home. We are heavily dependent upon transportation, whether it is by bicycle, car, or train, to take us to and from our places of business, education, or entertainment. Many of us will form families that change over our lifetime through divorce, remarriage, or death. We may move many times in the span of a decade as we take and leave various jobs. Our schedules may have us work at night, or on weekends, or have us traveling for days or weeks at a time.
The economic realities of a worldwide economy have created patterns of American work that look nothing like the ancient nomadic or village families of our ancestors. The daily strain of managing such complexities makes the restorative function of sleep absolutely critical for positive family functioning. Lack of quality sleep is a risk factor for postpartum depression and marital dysfunction.
Children who grow up in our culture need to develop quality sleep habits that enable them to function independently at night. A sleep plan that includes gradual adjustment from bassinet next to nursing mom’s side of the bed, to a crib easily accessed by both parents, to a toddler bed close to the floor, and finally to an adult bed should be carefully discussed and planned for. New parents should devote energy to the matter in the same way they might buy a changing table or discuss the kind of diapers they want to use.
Along with love, food, and shelter, sleep is an essential feature of developing, healthy life. There is no need to reach back into family patterns that do not fit our way of life to raise healthily attached, emotionally resilient children. Children attach to their caregivers in myriad ways while awake, when their pain, fear, or hunger is consistently and lovingly attended to. Everyone needs to get their sleep, and everyone, even growing infants, needs the space, safety and security of their own space to rest in.
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