As a new and sleep-deprived mom, I remember lying with my daughter on our bed the first night we returned home from the hospital. Who knows what time of day it was, that period is grainy and blurred. But there we were, learning more about each other with each breath. She rested on my chest lying in safety, like a daughter. When I imagined motherhood before actually becoming a mom, this image often came to mind. Things like this rarely panned out, as new motherhood most times hits as a shock to my system, nothing at all like how I imagined it would be. Still, I'd manifested our family bed, and here it was actually happening. I remember writing in my journal, "We lay together in the bed that had only recently become ours, and was also the center of everything." That I could be so coherent in these liminal days of new motherhood speaks to the intensity with which I approached co-sleeping.
What Is Co-Sleeping?
When it comes to co-sleeping, it's key to make a couple of distinctions. Reena B. Patel, LEP BCBA, a parenting expert, licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst, and author notes, "It is important first to understand the difference between co-sleeping and bed-sharing. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies co-sleep in the same room as their parents for the first 12 months of life, but on a separate and firm surface, avoiding pillows or blankets due to SIDS. Bed-sharing on the other hand, is when the child sleeps on the same surface as the parent."
"If you’re confused about co-sleeping (however you define it), the confusion is legitimate and it’s not necessarily you."
My journey with co-sleeping and bed-sharing began when my daughter was an infant and took different forms—all approved by my pediatrician. Now that she's a toddler, we bed-share and it's working for our lifestyle. It's just my experience; I don't feel an urge to convince anyone to do the same. It's worth noting, however, co-sleeping and bed-sharing goes against the grain in our culture. Here's what Diana Divecha, Ph.D, a developmental psychologist and an assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center and Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has to say about the prevalence of separate parent-child sleeping in our culture:
"The biological and cultural anthropologists argue that co-sleeping arrangements are normal for our species, that co-sleeping is biologically adaptive (safer) especially in the early months and years of life, and that safe co-sleeping has been widely practiced throughout the world and throughout history, i.e., is more normal. (About 70% of the world’s people practice co-sleeping; in the U.S. about 50-70% co-sleep at least occasionally.) It has been primarily "WEIRD" societies—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic—that have promoted separate sleeping in order to better accommodate modern economic/work life."
Although I felt in my bones that co-sleeping was something I wanted to and continue to do, I have many questions around it. Namely, as a single mom, what am I doing to my daughter's sense of attachment? Divecha tells me that my questions are totally normal. "If you’re confused about co-sleeping (however you define it), the confusion is legitimate and it’s not necessarily you." She goes on to say, "First of all, there’s just not that much definitive research. Many questions remain unanswered, many studies are in need of replication, definitions of co-sleeping are all over the board, and there are many uncontrolled, confounding variables."
Further, she explains that professionals from pediatricians to therapists and child development specialists all come at the notion of co-sleeping with different perspectives. For example, she says, "pediatricians’ goal is to reduce the risk of SIDS or SUIDS. While they are usually sincere in their desire to help families with sleep 'problems,' they are not steeped in developmental research." She adds, "No wonder it's hard to set your compass here."
Co-Sleeping, Bed-Sharing, and Attachment
As a mother, one of the most important things I strive to provide for my daughter is a relationship rooted in secure attachment. "A secure attachment, according to Alan Sroufe who has studied attachment across the lifespan, is a relationship in service of a baby or child’s emotion regulation and exploration," says Divecha. "It’s the abiding confidence a child has in the availability and responsiveness of a caregiver. It provides a sense of safety, soothes distress, is a source of joy, and supports calm; and it is a secure base from which to explore the world and return to for comfort."
I'm not alone; this is something most parents want, I'd hazard to guess. Do I feel more pressure to foster secure attachment in my kid because I'm a single mom? Absolutely. Growing up in a household where an unstable relationship between my parents was modeled, I've struggled with attachment myself. I'm determined to break the cycle. But the question becomes, is co-sleeping and now bed-sharing the way to do that? Am I overcompensating?
The short answer, according to Divecha, is... well, there's really no short answer. "If you are concerned about forming a secure attachment," she says, "I think looking to the sleep arrangement is a red herring—a distraction, rather than a focus of real concern. Instead, I would look to the dynamics that truly predict a secure attachment." She goes on to say that "the caregiver’s emotional availability and sensitive responsiveness fosters a secure attachment. This could happen in a bed-sharing situation or in a solitary sleeping situation."
What the Research Says
Divecha points to a 2009 study that measures nighttime maternal responsiveness and infant attachment. The study looked at one-year-olds who slept in a crib either in their parents’ room or a separate room and expressed distress in the middle of the night. The babies who were soothed by their parents, according to Divecha, "were more likely to have a secure attachment, compared to babies who did not get that kind of consistent sensitive response. In other words, the babies still formed secure attachments if they slept in cribs but had responsive parents."
She points to another study, one conducted in 2016, that indicates that solitary sleeping toddlers had a slightly greater tendency for "clinginess" than the co-sleeping babies. "The study had some methodological issues and needs to be replicated," Divecha explains. Finally, she points to another study that indicates "solitary sleeping preschoolers fell asleep better on their own, slept through the night better, and weaned earlier than co-sleeping children. However, the co-sleeping children were more self-reliant (e.g., could dress themselves earlier) and more socially capable (e.g., they made friends on their own more easily)."
So, as we can see, the data is kind of all over the place. And really, there's just not enough of it. "There is no significant empirical evidence that confirms co-sleeping enhances emotional attachment [over] children who sleep separately from their parents," says Patel.
Most parents, she says, do what feels right to them, striking a balance want and need. "Imagine parents who are working long hours and out of the house," says Patel. "They are limited in their opportunity to bond with their toddler. They may use this time to bond and comfort a child. During the day, this child would need to use other coping tools to feel comfort."
When I tell Patel that when my daughter is at preschool, she is able to fall asleep on her own during nap time, she notes, "this shows a strong separation and autonomy to you. This is a form of secure attachment." Finally, Divecha points out a body of "research in developmental science shows that it is the emotional availability of the caregiver at bedtime that matters more than the specific sleeping practices."
But, What About Mom?
I'm not going to lie, I felt a sigh of relief after speaking to Divecha and Patel, noting that our family bed in and of itself isn't getting in the way of her forming a secure attachment. Because, let's face it, as much as she loves cuddling up with me to fall asleep, I love it too. I derive comfort and feel safe and close and needed. As much as bed-sharing is an intentional parenting choice, I'm benefiting from it as well.
Allison Siebern, Ph.D, CBSM, and Head Sleep Science Advisor for Proper points out that "co-sleeping with a child has its pros and cons when it comes to a mother’s sleep. It can be comforting and calming to have Little One close by which may engage a parasympathetic response." On the other hand, she goes on to say, "Tossing and turning or a child waking up may disrupt the quality of the parent’s sleep leading to sleep fragmentation." But I guess that really goes for any bedfellow, right? Siebern notes that with a child in the bed, "increased hyper-vigilance can be a factor, "which can negatively impact the continuity of the parent’s sleep."
There's also this: my bed isn't hosting any romantic encounters lately. At the moment, I have no romantic attachments to speak of. I'm sure that will change in the future. Not sure how or when—I know that sounds vague and grainy, but I'm fine with it. There's something sacred about reclaiming this space as mine and mine alone to share with my daughter. From a developmental perspective, we're both growing, expanding. And even though I'm her guide, I'm changing too. But right now, this feels good.