I was recently asked about a couple whose 5-year-old son is sleeping with his mom while the father is sleeping in another room. This is a problem.
Dr. Michelle Golland: First, family sleeping actually involves the whole family sleeping in the same room or same bed, not one parent left out either by choice, design, or ease of situation. I believe each couple must make the decision together on how sleeping is going to be managed within their house. It needs to be a conscious decision, whether you are going to do shared sleeping for a time while you are nursing, or whether the baby will be in their own space from the beginning and will be fed in their room. I do not judge which situation you choose, but there are simply positives and negatives to both situations. For example, it is easier to nurse while the baby is in the bed, but it may be harder to sleep for some people as well.
I know these situations firsthand because my husband and I did shared sleeping with both of our children, who are now 8 and 5. I can say now that they are happily in their own bedrooms, but still love an occasional "Big Bed" night, where we all sleep in the master bedroom together. The important word here is occasional. The negative consequences of a situation where a child is really only sleeping with one parent are many, including issues between the couple, as well as issues for the child.
At some point, even kids need to have their own space and learn to sleep on their own. As parents, we are to help them deal with the anxiety of that experience by providing a loving and safe way for them to ease into sleep in their own room where they feel happy and comfortable. I believe the best age range to begin that process is anywhere from 2 to 4, depending on your family's circumstances, but remember that I am referring to actual shared sleeping, not one parent sleeping with the child.
If one parent doesn't want to do shared sleeping, then it is best not to do it at all. If it begins to be lopsided, with one parent over time being in the bed while the other is on the sofa, then it is time for that child to have his or her own sleeping space while the parents sleep together in the same room.
The 5-year-old that sleeps with his mom is clearly aware that he is getting the special time while his dad is on his own. What kind of message does this send to the child? I believe it tells him that his father or mother doesn't like this experience that he finds so wonderful, which is simply confusing to him. I think unconsciously, it is telling him something negative about his parents' relationship that he will interpret later in life as a negative for sure. Believe me -- any person I do therapy with, when recounting that their parents didn't sleep in the same room, sees this as a big problem. It is usually indicative of a marriage that was in trouble. It often also made them feel sad for either one or both of their parents, and confused about what it meant to even be married.
For the couple, there are either active marriage problems or there are going to be soon. It is simply important that as a couple, especially with children in the home, you create an intimate space that you both enjoy. The parent's bedroom should be a place of peace, rejuvenation, and intimacy, both sexual and non-sexual. I can guarantee that resentment and anger for one or both partners will develop if this behavior continues, if it is not active already. Our children require so much of our energy during the day that we must develop healthy boundaries around our own intimate time with our partner. Our children will not just hand this over to us by saying "OK, Mom and Dad, I know you have fed, played with me, and even wiped my tushy today, so I think you two should be alone and bond now." We as parents help them understand by seeing our actions in relationship with each other that we value our time and moments with our partner. We are not just examples of "mom and dad" for our kids, but of "husband and wife." We are showing them how to be in a relationship. I know when I see my son, I surely don't want him to be in a marriage where he is sleeping on the sofa disconnected from his future partner.
|Dr. Golland is a USC graduate and a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY#16974). She works with adults, teens and is an expert in the field of marriage and relationships. Dr. Golland has given her expert advice on CNN, HLN, MSNBC, ABC, and Fox news. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and wonderfully exhausting two children.|