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Parenting Advice Column
Subject: Father asks when co-sleeping should end

My wife and I attended child-birth classes in preparation for the birth of our daughter. We were told all of the benefits of co-sleeping so we decided that we should try it. She was breast-fed until she was 8 months old and the co-sleeping was fine. She will be 2 years old in April and she continues to sleep with us.

The problem we are having is that she cannot fall asleep on her own. She fights sleep terribly and can't go to sleep unless she is held. We were never told when to end co-sleeping or how to end co-sleeping. Now we feel that we have made a big mistake. Do you have any advice for us?

- Name withheld


For most of human history, and in many cultures today, children this age and older have slept safely and securely with their parents through the night.  Your concern is understandable, given our society's efforts to force independence before a child is ready. But wanting to be held at night is a perfectly normal and healthy desire for a two-year-old... or for a 32-year-old! Her wanting you near is a sure sign that you are doing things right. You have created a close bond with her that will last a lifetime.

The fact that she is no longer nursing gives us a clue. If she were still nursing, she would be held while falling asleep, like all nursing babies and toddlers. Just because she isn't nursing doesn't mean that she is ready to lose the holding too! In fact it makes the security and closeness of holding that much more important. Non-nursing babies are inevitably held less during the day. And here is an interesting fact: nursing babies grow up to be children who have higher IQs than non-nursing babies. We used to think it was the nutrition in breastmilk, but it turned out to be the extra holding. The following excerpt is from Dr. George Wootan's article "Breastfeeding: New Discoveries":

"... the increased opportunity for parent-child bonding offered by breastfeeding is a widely known benefit of nursing, which brings up an interesting sidelight. A baby can have lots of brain cells, but they won't do any good unless they're interconnected. The nerve fibers that connect these cells are called dendrites. And what develops dendrites? You probably said breast milk ... right? Wrong! Touching develops dendrites. Holding, touching, and stroking a baby, as a mother naturally does while nursing ("you can prop a bottle but not a breast"), helps the child develop the way nature intended, both physically and emotionally."

Your intelligent daughter is trying to let you know how important touch and holding are to her. If a child has a healthy need like this, the only way to help them to grow is to meet that need. Fighting it can only delay the child's development, and endanger the parent-child bond in the bargain. As Naomi Aldort wrote, "Every stage in a child's life is there for a purpose. If we can respect and respond to her needs fully during each stage of her life, she can be done with that stage and move on." And move on she will! My son is now 24. Holding him as he fell asleep is one of my fondest memories, and today we have a close and joyful relationship.

This stage may seem like it will last forever, and sometimes she will need you when you want to be doing other things. But you'll be amazed at how quickly these early years go by. Enjoy them while you can! You are lucky to have a child who loves you - and she is lucky to have such loving parents.

In response to your second question, there is no need for you to decide when co-sleeping ends. As with everything else having to do with your daughter's development, you can trust your daughter - and only your daughter - to know when the time is right. It is our job as parents to identify our children's needs and meet them in the very best way possible. Some children are ready to sleep alone at 4 or 5, some not until much later. How can you know the best time? Consider your daughter as your resident expert on questions like this.

Further reading:

"Babies Need Their Mothers Beside Them"

Articles on sleep

The Family Bed

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