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When Should Family Sleeping Stop?

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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.

Family Sleeping

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.

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8 comments so far | Post a comment now
Spookygirl July 28, 2009, 3:29 PM

A son sleeping with mom, while dad is in another room, is not the usual definition of Family Bed, that I am aware of. Doing anything with your child to the exclusion of the spouse is not a healthy thing for one’s marriage.

Black Iris July 28, 2009, 4:42 PM

In other cultures moms sometimes sleep with the baby or child apart from the husband.

bedsharing mom July 28, 2009, 5:04 PM

While i agree there might be an issue in the marriage if the spouses don’t sleep together, I can say that my husband has a hard time sleeping, and even before we had children would sleep in the guest room/on the couch on occasion, just as he does now with our bedsharing toddler. There is plenty of cuddle time at bedtime, in the mornings, but the actual SLEEP hours he sometimes needs to be alone, and I do not believe this is a sign of a marriage problems.

Annie @ PhD in Parenting July 28, 2009, 9:32 PM

Calling this “a problem” is both unimaginative and judgmental.

I know families where the parents sleep apart because the father snores. If there are two bedrooms and two beds, then it only makes sense for the person that disturbs the sleep of others to be the one that sleeps alone.

To suggest that intimacy can only happen in the marital bed is extremely conservative and unimaginative. We put our kids to bed, enjoy intimacy in other parts of the house, and can then join the kids to sleep later.

In our house, we play musical beds with the sleep arrangements changing as our children grow and their preferences change. But no one has to sleep alone if they don’t want to and no one has to sleep with others if they don’t want to.

ame i. July 28, 2009, 11:58 PM

My first-born daughter spent her first 2 nights at home in the bed with my late-husband & I but I made the choice to move her crib into our room & have her sleep there when I woke during the 2nd night & had her so close to me we were both sweating.
My second-born daughter slept in the bed with me for 2 weeks; my late-husband slept in the guest room b/c he had the flu & pneumonia.
Late DH & I traded off sleeping with daughter the 1st when she was 2-3 b/c his snoring kept me awake. It didn’t bother daughter the 1st.
Our girls shared a bed together and/or with me during the year or so after late-husband died.
One girl or the other gets into bed with my “now” husband and I every once in awhile but not often.
I think the “family bed” should be temporary or allowed occasionally but it is important for children to learn to sleep in their own bed and for parents to do the same.

chris July 29, 2009, 11:17 AM

Couldn’t get my older kid out of my bed until he was around 6 so when I had the second child we try not to repeat the same habit. If she’s sick we will let her in bed but if she just wants to sleep with us we give her a sleeping bag and she “camps out” beside our bed. I usually will hold her hand until she fell asleep and this way we get to keep the bed and she still feels close to us. I don’t know if because we didn’t let her in as much as my son but she doesn’t really have the need to sleep with us as much and is fine with her own bed.

RachelAZ July 30, 2009, 2:11 AM

Ugh, I’m against cosleeping altogether specifically for the reason that people (KIDS INCLUDED) need their own space. And there is no way I am going to kick my husband out of bed just because my child wants to sleep in the big bed! Just let your children sleep in their own beds…it is better for everyone!

Grandma August 14, 2010, 7:19 AM

My daughter’s family co-sleeps. The children are 12 (male), 10 (female), 8 (female) plus Mom and Dad. These are healthy kids — two weigh over 100 pounds. So frequently Dad sleeps with the girls and Mom and son sleep in another room or Mom sleeps with one or more girls or sometimes , the children sleep together. I am disturbed by this sleeping method but have been told I am “out of touch”. I think an embarrassing incident is not far from happening.

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