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Should I let My Baby Sleep With Me?

Aletha Solter, Ph.D


Babies are much better off sleeping with their parents, but most advice given to parents these days is to have their baby sleep alone, in a separate room, at least by the age of six months. There is no evidence of any kind that it is good for babies to sleep alone, and this notion is only as old as this century. During the middle ages in Europe, babies slept with their mothers until they were weaned from the breast at around two years of age, and then slept with either a sibling or a servant. By the nineteenth century, the attitudes toward sex and touching had changed, with consequences on child rearing. Babies still often slept with their mothers, but by one year of age they were expected to sleep alone.

Sleep Trends Over the Years

During the twentieth century, infants in technological societies became more separated from their mothers than ever before in the history of our species. More and more births took place in hospitals, and the hospital central nursery was invented to protect the infants from infections. From day one babies were expected to sleep alone, away from their mothers.

This trend toward having babies sleep alone in the United States may also have something to do with the independent competitiveness of capitalistic societies. It became a common belief that if babies were not encouraged to sleep and play alone, they would always remain dependent and immature; these undesirable personality traits would then interfere with success and "getting ahead."

Another possible reason for the decreasing popularity of babies sleeping with their mothers may be a decline in breast-feeding. Not only is it more convenient to sleep with one's baby when breast-feeding, but also, presumably because of the hormone prolactin, nursing mothers are more eager for closeness with their babies, and are more willing to sleep with them than non-nursing mothers.

Cage-like structures, known as cribs, took the place of the family bed. Babies were expected to be content to cuddle with stuffed animals and blankets instead of their parents' loving arms, and to listen to music boxes instead of their parents' voices. It is little wonder that parents began seeking advice for a whole new array of problems. Experts in the field of child rearing found themselves searching for remedies for the babies who would not go to sleep at night, for the infants who rocked or purposely banged their heads, for the toddlers who climbed out of their cribs and kept coming into their parents' bed, and for the young children who wet their beds, or had nightmares and fears of the dark.

Drastic and potentially dangerous measures are sometimes taken, unfortunately, such as tying babies to their cribs, locking them in their rooms, or giving them tranquillizers. Many of these sleep related problems are probably the result of forcing babies to sleep alone. Head banging has reportedly been cured simply by having the mother hold her child (instead of ignoring him) at times when he began banging his head.

It's Parent's Choice

Despite the advice given by experts, sleeping alone clearly goes against parents' natural desires. Many parents would naturally tend to sleep with their babies if they had never heard any advice to the contrary. In fact, in spite of strict recommendations and the cultural taboo against sleeping with one's children, the practice is actually more common than is generally believed. The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote: "The fact that co-family sleeping occurs regularly in many human groups as it does among ours even though the social code is opposed to this practice, is highly significant, and points to a stubborn human characteristic." Mothers sleep with their infants in all traditional tribal cultures. Countries in which co-family sleeping arrangements have continued in spite of industrialization include Japan, Java, Haiti, and parts of India (and there has been a recent revival of this practice in North America). One of the assumptions of this book is that babies can be trusted to know what they need for optimal physical and emotional development. Babies' wants and needs are one and the same thing. If a baby indicates a desire to sleep in her parents' bed (as most babies do at some point), then she needs to sleep in their bed. She needs the closeness and reassurance of having her parents nearby. Anna Freud confirms this: " it is a primitive need of the child to have close and warm contact with another person's body while falling asleep The infant's biological need for the caretaking adult's constant presence is disregarded in our Western culture, and children are exposed to long hours of solitude owing to the misconception that it is healthy for the young to sleep . alone."

Baby - The Survivor

The strong need and desire of human babies to sleep near their parents may have its basis in the evolutionary history of our species. As mentioned in Chapter 1 of The Aware Baby, humans are very helpless at birth. During the hunter-gatherer stage of our species' existence they would have been extremely vulnerable to predators, especially at night. Infants who had a great fear of the dark and who refused to sleep alone had a much better chance of surviving than those infants who did not complain. There was strong selective pressure in favor of such fears. Although predators are no longer a threat, babies do not know that. All of their reflexes, instincts, and needs are still geared to the hunter-gatherer way of life. Cultural changes have occurred much too rapidly to have any major impact on the genetic makeup of our species since that time. In the animal world, incidentally, it is quite common for the young to be with their mothers at night. This is especially true for mammals, who depend on their mothers not only for protection, but for warmth and nourishment as well. Monkeys and apes remain in continual contact with their mothers' bodies for many months after birth.

Copyright 1994 by Aletha Solter

This is excerpted from Chapter 2 of Aletha Solter's book, The Aware Baby (Shining Star Press, P.O. Box 206, Goleta, CA 93116)

About the Author: Aletha Solter, Ph.D. is an internationally known developmental psychologist, consultant, founder of the Aware Parenting Institute , and author of The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, and Tears and Tantrums (Shining Star Press, P.O. Box 206, Goleta, CA 93116).

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