When a child sleeps with Mom and Dad

PARENT Q&A

July 16, 2000|By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. | T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.,NEW YORK TIMES SPECIAL FEATURES

Q. I recently received a copy of your response to a letter regarding the transitioning of a child from his parents' bed to his own bed. You wrote: "Learning to sleep alone is an autonomy issue for the child and a separation issue for the parents."

I'm not clear on what that means. Is it important for a child's independence to learn to sleep on his own by a certain age or developmental stage?

My son, who is 3, has slept with my husband and me since birth. He has his own room with a bed, but he is uninterested in it. I don't think he should be forced to move to his own bed until he is ready, but many of my relatives are concerned that we are hurting his development in some way.

I work outside the home, as does my husband, so we feel it is important to spend as much time as possible with our son, including at night. We feel that sleeping with him has contributed to our son's strong sense of self-confidence, and I've been sort of proud that he hasn't felt the need to have a "lovey" to get to sleep. Instead, he just needs some hugs and a pat on the back.

Can you give me more information or suggest a source where I can learn more? I'm sold on the benefits of co-sleeping but would like more information on the autonomy and separation issues you mentioned.

A. Many working parents find, as you have, that sleeping with their children can be a kind of family reunion. The difficulty is that the child usually does not want to separate or become independent (autonomous) at night until a later age than most.

I wonder, as you do, whether the problem is just our society, which demands such independence at night. Most other cultures in which parents sleep with their small children have a formal time for separation. Until that time comes, they don't worry about it.

We do worry in our society if a 4- or 5-year-old is not sleeping alone. I used to feel strongly about the need for a child to be more independent at night. But nowadays, with our stressed, overworked families, there may be more of a need for togetherness. I have mixed feelings about co-sleeping today.

In Japan, where most mothers sleep with their children, they say that the child begins to want to separate into his own room at age 5. Maybe you can encourage your son's independence at that age. (Incidentally, Japanese fathers don't usually sleep with the children.)

Address questions to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, care of the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.

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