Co-sleeping and a battle for the bed

Older children, even teens, are crowding their parents’ bed. Navigating nighttime has never been more contentious.
Photograph by Kourosh Keshiri

Ever since a dresser fell on top of little Gabriel and cracked his head open two years ago, he has slept in his parents’ bed. He’s six years old now, and the bed has become known as “mommy’s bed” because his dad, Tony, sleeps in Gabriel’s room down the hall. Gabriel’s older sister Michaela, 9, also sleeps in mommy’s bed because she felt left out. And the family dog sleeps with Tony, who felt crowded out. It wasn’t really supposed to be this way. “It went from one night to two nights to every night of the week,” says mom Francesca, who has tried to move the kids back into their own beds at Tony’s urging. “Sometimes I feel torn. They cry and get upset, and I think, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I done?’”

Francesca never imagined that her marital bed would turn into the family bed. But she is just one of countless parents who are sleeping with their children for all or part of the night. Every night. Fussy or breastfeeding babies, scared or restless toddlers, strong-willed school-age kids and even anxious teens, all of them snuggle close to their loving parents and drift into an oblivious, blissful slumber.

In some cases, their parents do too; they’ve accepted the arrangement, or have happily chosen it as a reflection of their ethnic heritage or “attachment parenting” ideology. But countless others don’t: dusk to dawn they struggle to catch whatever Z’s they can in between wrestling for covers and dodging elbows and knees. They wouldn’t bed-share if their kids gave them the option. These parents, known as “reactive co-sleepers” among experts, are doing this because “it’s the only way they can get everyone to sleep as much as possible,” says Dr. Shelly Weiss, president of the Canadian Sleep Society. “It’s not their choice.”

It’s the kind of explanation that is sure to agitate those already inclined to believe modern-day parenting is too indulgent—of course parents have a choice, they’ll say. The reality is, many parents are making their decisions on the best choice at bedtime amid competing philosophies about what it takes to be a good mother and father. Should you cuddle kids to sleep to foster security and cultivate independence or is it better that they be brave and cry their way to autonomy? How many times must an overworked parent get up in the middle of the night to offer a consoling hug or placating glass of water before it’s acceptable to climb into the kid’s bed? It’s the single-biggest problem that parents bring up with Denis Leduc, a Montreal pediatrician who co-authored the Canadian Pediatric Society’s position statement on safe sleep. “By far the two most common questions we get are, ‘How do I get them to be comfortable with falling asleep at night, and what do I do when they wake up?”

The matter of children not wanting to sleep is as old as time. But there appears to be a greater appreciation for it now than ever: “behavioural insomnia” is a relatively new medical term popping up in the scientific literature to describe the 20-30 per cent of kids who have trouble falling or staying asleep, and who suffer for it the next day. It is, in fact, the most common sleep disorder. There is increasing awareness too of the ill effects of fatigue in both children and adults, which run the gamut from memory and concentration problems to irritability, obesity and marital strain.

There is also a new-found expression of frustration among exhausted parents: the 2011 “children’s book for adults” entitled Go the F–k to Sleep was written by Adam Mansbach, an American dad enervated by his stubbornly wakeful daughter. It includes such verses as, “The cats nestle close to their kittens, the lambs have laid down with the sheep. You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear. Please go the f–k to sleep.” The book became an instant bestseller, and a YouTube reading by Samuel L. Jackson, a fan and father of one, went viral.

Its popularity might be due to the fact that in giving and receiving the book parents are encouraged to talk about—even laugh about—this very personal and contentious aspect of home life. Many of the parents who spoke with Maclean’s were reluctant to have their full name published out of concern about how their bed-sharing could be misconstrued. In a way, how a family sleeps can illuminate much about how they live. “Sleep is the first place where [individuals] start expressing their parenting style,” says Wendy Hall, a pediatric sleep researcher and professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “It is a cauldron for how people choose to be with their children, and so there’s a lot of controversy that comes up around that.”

Discussing their family’s sleep habits opens parents up to all kinds of uneasy questions—about their sex life, their ability to control their children and their children’s ability to control them. It raises larger social questions about whether nighttime has become a convenient substitute for diminished quality time during the day. And everyone has an opinion, welcome or not. “Parents are made to feel that if their children aren’t sleeping well that somehow their parenting is flawed,” continues Hall. “And people often present themselves as morally superior when their children are ‘sleeping well.’ ” Whatever that looks like for them.

In truth, for many families, bed-sharing is a night-by-night effort to lose the least amount of sleep and sanity, which are really one and the same. “It’s just a way that parents figure out how to cope,” says Hall. “And like anything that you do, those decisions have consequences, and they may be unintended.”

Before Alicia had her son and daughter, she had one view of how to parent. “We started out, ‘Oh, the baby will never sleep in our bed,’ ” she recalls discussing with her husband. But that plan changed soon after their children were born, and they couldn’t seem to sleep on their own. Alicia became “a basket case,” and eventually a piece of foam on the floor near the never-used crib became the family’s primary resting place. “Now my kids are 8½ and 5½, and we have all gotten used to a big pile on the queen bed in their room,” she says.

As the children have grown bigger though, that setup has become less comfortable for Alicia’s husband. Some nights, after the kids are asleep, he’ll switch to the master bed—and Alicia will follow him. Without fail, their son will quickly join them. “He has radar. He’ll make sure he has his hands in my hair, and he’ll get half on top of me, and say, ‘Mommy, I love you so much, Mommy, Mommy, I need you.’ Then my daughter will come in,” says Alicia, thinking back to a recent night. Like dominoes, the next move is all but inevitable: “My husband gets up and goes to the other bed.” Again.

It’s a scenario that Tracey Ruiz has seen enough times in her nine years helping families fix their sleep problems that she has a coined a term for it: “musical beds.” She’s worked as a “sleep doula” in Toronto for nine years, charging $350 for an in-home consultation plus $50 an hour for additional visits, which often include all-nighters. Ruiz has been surprised by the prevalence of bed-sharing between parents and school-age kids. “I can tell you that when I started my business I was focusing on families with children under two,” she recalls, “and just because of demand now I’m working with families with children under 10.”

While it’s unknown exactly how many kids share a bed with their parents—there is a dearth of such research—a look at behavioural insomnia studies suggests that about one in four children depends on mom and dad to get through the night. In many cases, that means co-sleeping. “It’s often the first thing parents do when the children are very young,” says Reut Gruber, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and clinical psychologist who sees families wanting to form new sleep habits. “They don’t have energy, so they just grab them, put them in their bed and reinforce this pattern.” For years. “It’s not a rare problem, it’s quite frequent.”

Almost always the arrangement persists for one of two reasons, or both: parents don’t know how to change it, or they aren’t really sure it should. “It is confusing,” says Ana Villalobos, a sociologist at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who studies how mothers express responsibility for their children. “A lot of people start reading pregnancy books, and that gets them acculturated into the expert literature. Then they say, ‘Might as well read What to Expect in the First Year’—everybody has that. And people give people books. And pretty soon they have this whole library of expert advice, which is often conflicting.” Indeed, a study of 40 American parenting books on sleep revealed that 28 per cent supported bed-sharing, 40 per cent opposed the practice, and 32 per cent didn’t include a word about it.

Whereas co-sleeping with infants has been unilaterally discouraged by public health authorities for years because of its link to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), naming the risks of co-sleeping with older children is far more challenging. There appear to be no physical dangers such as SIDS, suffocation, or squashing a little body. And in families where everyone is happy about bed-sharing, or where it is a cultural norm, sleep experts are adamant that there are no disadvantages to the practice.

But among reactive co-sleepers, experts suggest there may be “psychological and family function” threats, says Weiss, a neurologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and author of Better Sleep for Your Baby and Child. For starters, it might stunt autonomy: “If children go right into their school years and even adolescence with the view that they can’t sleep on their own then it doesn’t really give them that sense of independence and self-control,” says Hall. “And that can translate into other parts of their lives where they don’t feel particularly confident about dealing with hostilities or other challenges.”

And then there’s the chilling effect on parents when children literally come between them. Some unhappy spouses, such as Peter (now divorced), admit to using the family bed as a “convenient wedge”—an easy way to avoid each other, even subconsciously. Others, such as Tony, miss the intimacy. “It’s been pretty much non-existent. I’ll mention it to Francesca, and she’ll get frustrated, ‘Is that all you ever think about?’ And it’s really not. I feel that we don’t have that closeness anymore. Husband and wife in separate beds, it’s just not normal to me.”

Francesca, like many mothers, sees sleeping with her kids another way: “I say, ‘They are small once.’ It might be hard now, but it’ll get better. Eventually they’re going to grow out of this phase, and then you’ll think back and say, ‘Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal after all.’ ” In fact, a theme emerges in talking to reactive co-sleepers: mothers are usually far more tolerant of sharing a bed with the kids than fathers.

Eva’s husband, Josh, sleeps with their eldest daughter, who is six, in her bedroom, and has for most of her life. Eva sleeps with their infant son in the master bed, and their middle daughter sleeps by herself in her own room. “It’s not a big deal,” says Eva. “It seems natural to me.” And since they don’t plan on having more kids, she is relishing this time with their baby: “He’s my little prince.” Josh, however, is ready to reclaim his bed. “I just don’t sleep well,” he says. “If it were up to me, [our son] would be in a crib.”

The willingness of many mothers to put up with bed-sharing for longer than fathers may point to a phenomenon that’s captivating sociologists such as Villalobos. Her forthcoming book, Motherload, describes moms increasingly taking on responsibility for their children’s physical, emotional and financial security when the economy, geopolitics and public health and safety become less secure. Safeguarding them from sleepless nights might be an extension of that.

She also suspects many mothers find their own sense of security in their children. “You can’t really depend on marriage to last forever. You can’t really depend on your job to last forever,” explains Villalobos. “So for a lot of women, the one thing they can think of as a guaranteed bond is the mother-child relationship.”

It’s a stunning analysis, and it may not be too far off the mark. “I enjoy the cuddle,” admits Alicia, “and in some ways I feel better when they’re next to me. It’s like I don’t have to worry about them.” But she also sees bed-sharing as a bonding opportunity for the whole family—which can be hard to come by. “For some people, co-sleeping is definitely a way to have the closeness that’s not afforded by the fact that everybody’s running from here to there trying to make ends meet.”

That’s not to say these families go to bed begrudgingly with their kids one night and wake up the next morning as co-sleeping zealots. Rather, they are making the most of their situation. “If you get home at 6:30 p.m. and your kid goes to bed at 7:30 p.m., then do you want: a) an hour with them? Or b) nine hours with them?” asks Villalobos. “A lot of people will choose b) because it’s a form of intimate connection and it makes [everybody] feel like they’re having a relationship.”

As a family doctor, Ellen is supposed to discourage co-sleeping. “But I don’t follow the books. I say, ‘Do whatever you thinks is right,’ ” she says. So as a mother, Ellen often co-sleeps with her five-year-old daughter, whose neediness comes and goes—according to what, it’s unclear. These days, “she’s kind of afraid of the dark,” says Ellen. “So I’m not going to fight it.” Partly Ellen is so accepting of her daughter’s desire for company in bed because she remembers wanting it too as a child. “I slept with my mother. I think I was 12 before I ventured into my own room,” she recalls. Ellen won’t expect any different from her daughter. “I’m sure she will end up back in her room when she’s ready. When the time is right, it’ll happen.”

Exactly when is the right time—or put more pointedly, wrong time—for a child to sleep with a parent is one of those questions that can make people squeamish. Many of the experts who spoke with Maclean’s know of teens sharing a bed with their moms and dads. Often, their circumstances are complicated by factors such as anxiety. But by and large, the consensus is that as children become less childlike, co-sleeping should end. “Certainly when children start to have their first signs of pubertal maturation is probably the right time not to [bed-share],” says Leduc, past president of the Canadian Pediatric Society.

Many reactive co-sleepers refuse to wait that long, however, and instead resort to professional help. Doula Ruiz, who also goes by the name “sleep teacher,” starts by sitting down with the whole family. “I say, ‘We are going teach everybody—mom, dad, the dog, everybody—how to sleep in their bed all night long.’ So the focus isn’t just, ‘We’re going to get Suzie out of the bed,’ ” she explains. Any items in the child’s room that may be dangerous during a tantrum are removed. Bulbs may be stripped from lamps and ceiling fixtures so the child can’t turn on the light to avoid going to sleep. And, with military exactness, the new bedtime routine is reviewed.

It is a lesson in the art of negotiation. The child gets to choose, should the bedroom door be open or closed? Tonight, mom will sit beside the child’s bed until he or she is asleep. Tomorrow night, in the hallway. Masking tape may be placed on the floor in a trail from the child’s bed to the parents’ room; each night, a parent sleeps on a taped spot further away. If children insist on being in the parents’ room, they have to sleep on the floor. “It’s a really fast change when you’re ready to commit to it,” says Ruiz. “Usually about three days. Two weeks and it really is a habit.”

Gruber has also seen remarkable changes, quickly. But first, moms and dads have to move out of their own comfort zone. “Many parents are very caring. Sometimes being oversensitive to your child’s requests can get you set into this trap,” she explains. So “what can be a great asset in terms of parenting can sometimes work against you if you don’t know when it’s better to give the child more opportunity to learn how to go to sleep.” Her message to those struggling with bed-sharing is singular: “Parents don’t have to accept that this is just part of having children.”

But many do, and they even sometimes come to like it. Eva and Josh have taken pleasure in finding creative ways for intimacy. “We’ve made it work,” she says, “and it’s kind of fun and crazy.” And Tony and Francesca have made a pact to start a new sleep routine before the kids go back to school in the fall. On weeknights the kids will be in their own beds. It’s worked before—in the spring, in fact. But once the family got off the school schedule, they reverted to co-sleeping. Francesca is hopeful the plan will stick this time.

For Alicia’s family, the bed has become a safe place for her children to share their feelings. “It’s like pillow talk,” she says. In fact, just the other night Alicia’s 8½-year-old daughter pulled her close and confided, “Mommy, I think I’m getting too old to sleep here. I don’t want to be alone, but I think I’ll sleep in the other room.” She was amazed to hear her daughter “sowing her independence” and sorting out her needs and wants.

All Alicia said was, “That’s fine, and if you want to come back in the night, that’s fine.” But all she was thinking was, “That’s awesome!”