In an evolution of parenting styles, each of my three kids essentially got a different mom and dad: Our eldest got Type A rule-followers, the middle benefitted from parents who were slightly broken-in and the youngest got the most permissive pair. One major difference was the excess of time that little caboose slept in our bed. It was a path of least resistance and sometimes a space necessity. Work travel often presented a kid-coveted bed vacancy. Admittedly, there was also comfort in clinging to that last baby. But it rarely made for an undisturbed night’s sleep.
Co-sleeping (parent and child sleeping on the same surface or in the same room) is a tricky topic. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome recommended that parents sleep in the same room with their infant, but not to have the infant in the same bed. Once those babies enter toddlerhood, however, there has been a lack of guidance for parents. In the United States, co-sleeping beyond infancy appears to be most common among lower-income families, where room sharing may be an economic necessity.
New research out of University of Maryland School of Medicine addressing this topic was recapped in the December 2017 issue of the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in the article “Perceived Toddler Sleep Problems, Co-sleeping, and Maternal Sleep and Mental Health” by Lauren B. Covington, M.S., R.N., Bridget Armstrong, Ph.D. and Maureen M. Black, Ph.D.
Black says many of the families she sees in clinic in Baltimore continue to co-sleep with their children through toddlerhood. When asked if they want to maintain co-sleeping, parents typically say no because they aren’t sleeping as well as they could be. That connection between co-sleeping and diminished maternal sleep quality launched this research. The study involved 280 mothers with children between the ages of 12 and 32 months.
Co-sleeping and lost zzz’s
It is perfectly normal for toddlers to encounter sleep challenges, such as difficulty settling into sleep and routine night wakings. Most children will learn to self-soothe independently, but when parents are in the same room or same bed, mothers often find themselves taking personal responsibility for the toddler’s ability to sleep. A cycle of sleep problems may be created: Mom’s sleep is disturbed by the child’s awakenings, mom’s own different sleep schedule or stirrings may wake the child, and so it goes.
Perception is key
The researchers found that co-sleeping mothers who perceived sleep problems in their children got less sleep themselves. According to the study, believing that a toddler has a sleep problem resulted in an average of 51 minutes less sleep when mothers reported co-sleeping. “Even if these behaviors are normal for children, if the mother thinks there is a problem and sleeps in the same bed or room with her child, then the mother is likely to wake up more at night and get less sleep,” Black says.
Because extended co-sleeping is not as common in the U.S., the perception of criticism may add to a co-sleeping mother’s anxiety. If parents aren’t on the same page about co-sleeping, it can strain relationships.
On the flip side, if a child sleep problem is not perceived, maternal sleep deficiencies during co-sleeping are not present. For some families, co-sleeping works great and everyone gets the rest they need. It is clearly not a one-size-fits-all situation.
Sleep requirements don’t always mesh
It’s no surprise that the amount of sleep needed by children and adults is notably different. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should average about 7 to 9 hours, while children should get roughly 10 to 14 hours nightly. When a co-sleeping mom gets nearly an hour less than her needed sleep per night, and less restful sleep overall, the deficiencies add up to bigger problems such as impairments in cognitive functioning and mood.
Sleep problems lead to other problems
We’ve probably all seen (if not lived) how lack of sleep among mothers can lead to irritability, sadness, physical and mental exhaustion, weight gain and other health concerns. The “mombie” phase many of us go through when tending to newborns is almost a rite of passage. But when sleep deprivation extends beyond the infancy stage, the resulting problems can potentially affect learning and behavior in children as well.
“When we don’t get enough sleep, we are at increased risk for symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression,” Black says. Additionally, “maternal mental health can affect parenting and ultimately the health and well-being of children. Maternal depressive symptoms have been associated with child health problems, low cognitive performance and psychopathology.”
Pediatricians are poised to help
By screening for child sleep problems, pediatricians are presented with an opportunity to help struggling families. Intervention for sleep problems can lead to happier, healthier children, parents and relationships. Stopping the co-sleeping arrangement is not easy, Black notes. “Breaking the routine of co-sleeping with a toddler can be painful because there likely will be some crying. Typically the crying stops after three or four nights.” Black says many of the families who successfully stop co-sleeping say they wish they had done it sooner.
Healthy sleep habits are important for everyone. Know that your pediatrician can help find solutions if your family struggles with getting a good night’s sleep.