(Chapter 1, The Family Bed)
by Tine Thevenin
Our days, our deeds, all we achieve or are,
Lie folded in our infancy.
- John T. Trowbridge
Most of us have read or heard, at one time or another, an
"authority's" advice on children sleeping with their parents or
with other siblings. Although opinions on this subject are quite
controversial, the practice is usually frowned upon. This is because such
persons, by nature of their professions, usually follow what they have
been taught in school. Also, they are frequently associated only in
contact with troubled cases that were brought to them because of a need
for professional attention. When co-family sleeping is
"permitted," it is usually not without the child care
practitioner's own personal opinion as to what extent and with what
limitations it should be followed. Of course, personal opinions differ
tremendously and, being personal, often have nothing to do with fact or
even reality. They may change as the practitioner's exposure to co-family
sleeping expands. The professionals who are most likely to advocate a
relaxed, loving family sleeping situation are those who have themselves
experienced such a sleeping setup, discovering that it does not lead to
dire consequences. Slowly but surely we are beginning to hear from these
doctors, while others are venturing to open their minds.
In the June 1979 issue of Redbook, Dr. T Berry Brazelton made a
revealing statement for which I have high respect. He felt he had to
re-evaluate his rather rigid ideas on handling sleep problems in our
culture. Dr. Brazelton had received an overwhelming number of letters from
parents across the country who disagreed with his advice that children
should not sleep in the same bed as their parents. What he did not realize
was how many parents "did not believe in helping a child learn to
sleep alone at night."
On the other hand, one can pick up many a book on child rearing and
read that bad sleeping habits in a child are formed when Mother hears Baby
whimper and "rushes" in to see if everything is all right.
According to these books, the child will wake up more frequently just to
receive his mother's attention. "They will wrap you around their
little finger," so "take heed". Yet, this seems such a
distrustful approach to take toward an innocent baby, who simply needs
care and love. Mother is reprimanded for wanting to pick up her crying
baby. Yet responding to her baby's call shows concern for her child, and
is an action that comes from the very heart of motherhood.
The child, meanwhile, is scolded for reaching out to his parents during
a time of need. He is to be told "lovingly but firmly" that
night is not a time for parental love and attention. "Now go to
sleep," his mother says. Can anyone "go to sleep" upon
command, especially during a time of loneliness or fright? Such books
strongly advise parents not to take their children to bed with them,
whether in time of stress or as a matter of course. The parent is neither
allowed nor encouraged to place trust in his own parental emotions.
Instead, he becomes the innocent victim of social taboos that seem to
change with every generation. Every few years, a new book on child rearing
floods the market and confuses the issue, but all claim to have "the
answer" to ideal child rearing, as seen from the perch of an
armchair. My great-grandmother was told to nurse her baby every three
hours throughout the day. "Start solids at nine months".
"Baby should sleep a predetermined number of hours during the day, as
well as at night".
My mother was encouraged to bottle-feed her children, and only every
four hours. "Start solids at six months". A crying baby was not
to be picked up until it was "time". Baby slept in his own crib
or bassinet. When my babies were born, breastfeeding was actually
discouraged as not being very scientific. Solid food was introduced at
three to six weeks. Babies must sleep in their own rooms. The big problem
was that my children did not read those books, did not understand clocks
and schedules, and challenged all those man-made introductions. This book
is a result of the search for child-rearing methods that would work for me
and my children. And after seventeen years I can honestly say that they
have worked beautifully: nursing on demand, weaning when ready, sleeping
when tired and wherever the baby happened to be, and co-family sleeping
until each child wanted a room of her own. Approach: Listen to the
Society tells us that co-family sleeping is taboo. But it doesn't give
us any satisfactory answers to bed and nighttime problems with children,
The parental instinct should not be underestimated, although this
seemed to be the trend for many years. But times began to change in the
'70's. In a 1974 newspaper article, Dr. Spock said that parents of this
country are convinced that only trained persons know how children should
be reared. This, he continued, has resulted in a lack of self-assurance on
the part of parents. He goes so far as to call it a "cruet
deprivation" that has been imposed on mothers and fathers.
In 1974, another article appeared1,
entitled "Why Some Babies Don't Sleep." The authors of this
article found that the most common problem of parental concern was the
child's waking at night. In their comments on the result of their
research, they wrote that some of the advice that frequently comes from
health visitors, welfare clinics, and general practitioners is not always
very helpful and may actually have little real experience behind it. The
minimum research that is done on this problem, compared with matters
concerning hospital care of sick babies is, as a matter of fact, striking.
"What has emerged from the research," they continue, "has
not filtered through very effectively to those who need it."
What do parents have to say on this subject? One young mother wrote,
"I deeply feel that our baby should be with us during the night.
However, she has a bedroom of her own. Why? I do not know. I wish it could
be different. We frequently have such difficulty in getting her to sleep
without crying. I wish I knew what to do."
I was this mother, writing about our first child when she was nine
months old. As a new parent, it never occurred to me then to take her into
bed with my husband and me.
By the time our second child was born, we had talked about this subject
with many people. To our great surprise, we found many who
"confessed" to taking their children into bed with them. They
did so usually because of a child's sleeping problem or because it seemed
to result in a happier family.
|It is amazing that something as natural, loving, and comforting as
co-family sleeping should even be a subject for discussion. But, alas, it
is not the first, natural thing that has been disrupted by scientific
intervention. Cribs, clocks, and multiple-room dwellings where several
rooms are specifically set aside for an individual's sleeping - all come
under the heading of inventions. And an invention is on precarious
ground because it is often not in harmony with nature. It is "new and
improved." The ingredients for love and a close-knit family life,
however, have only to be rediscovered. They have been there all along.
|A great majority of successful breastfeeding mothers take
their babies to bed with them. Since comparatively few mothers
breastfeed for any length of time in our culture, it is no wonder that
family bed sharing is not the norm. Many parents have never even heard of
it, let alone considered it. In cultures where breastfeeding is the norm,
bed sharing is frequently as familiar as the family dinner table in our
own culture. According to a study by Dr. Niles Newton, which compared the
behavior of nursing and non-nursing mothers, there is a significant
difference in willingness to share a bed with their babies. Women who
breastfeed their children appear to be less concerned with current
cultural disapproval of bed sharing.2
This, then, also explains why so many parents said that La Leche
League, an organization that helps mothers with the art of breastfeeding,
specifically helped them to realize the benefits of having their young
children steep with them.
I would like to emphasize that this book does not quote statistics. It
does not intend to "prove" anything. It provides insight,
encouragement, and a reason for co-family sleeping. Primarily, it supports
the opinion that an open door policy to the family bed is an integral part
of open communication and listening to the child's need. This does not
mean that everyone must hop into one bed nor that one is a less than good
parent if children sleep in their own bed. The Family Bed is a
concept, part of a total picture, one step toward rearing happy children.
This concept releases families from the social taboo and gives them a
freedom of choice.
It should be mentioned that no specific age of the child has been
given. He may be referred to as a baby, young child, or child. This has
been done to alleviate the strong influence a prescribed age has on a
child's expected accomplishments. Most children, for instance, are no
longer afraid of the dark by the time they are twelve years old. But
suppose you have a child who is thirteen and still expresses fear? There
really isn't much you can do about it, except love him, accept him, work
with him, and wait until he is no longer afraid.
Among children who are accustomed to sleeping with someone from birth
on, there seems to be a natural graduation from needing to sleep in the
parental bed to sleeping with other siblings. This book's emphasis is on
the young child. It is to be recognized, therefore, that when I speak of
sleeping together, i.e. co-family sleeping, the implication is sleeping
with whomever he chooses, according to his emotional development. Thus,
some children are ready to leave the family bed at age two, while others
may not be ready until a much later age.
Twenty-five years ago, when prepared or natural childbirth was a
"new" idea, little information was available on the subject.
Many people, doctors and laymen alike, scoffed at the concept. Today,
because the medical profession and mothers have found it acceptable for
the mother to be awake and aware during her labor and birth, prepared
childbirth is no longer a novelty. It is becoming quite common, and
proving to be highly beneficial and effective.
Likewise, breastfeeding has made a comeback. There is now scientific
proof that nursing at the breast is superior to any other infant feeding
method. During the last twenty years, an increasing number of publications
on the great advantages of breastfeeding have been appearing on the
So, also, co-family sleeping is a relatively new idea - new, that is,
since we got away from it a mere century ago. Before this natural behavior
will again become accepted, its importance and benefits too will have to
be proven scientifically. Thirty years ago, it might have been difficult
to obtain sufficient convincing evidence. Thirty years ago this book might
have had little support. Today, a growing amount of research on the
negative results of separation of a mother and her child is becoming
available and accepted. Bowlby's book Separation:
Anxiety and Anger, volume two of Attachment
and Loss, goes into the greatest detail describing the effects
on a child when he is prematurely separated from his mother. The author,
who is a world authority on maternal attachment and deprivation, discusses
in great length the possible psychopathic results of such separation.
However, he has simply researched and documented what any keen observer
could have realized - unnecessary and prematurely-enforced separation does
not make a child happy. It is the author's feeling that a happy child is a
A mother went on to say that she has always known that a baby is much
happier white being held. "But nobody ever gave me a grant to publish
that fact." She concluded that, "When I need advice on rearing
children, I always ask experienced mothers and fathers of loving
Bottles and formula, cribs, clocks, and night lights are inventions
that have been tried on children over the past several short decades. In
the meantime, mother's milk and mother's arms have always been available,
patiently waiting for the passing of man's foolhardy arrogance, which
tried to convince us that his inventions were superior to nature. But just
wait a minute. Science is now "proving" that which many a
parent's heart has known for years: "My child needs me at night as
well as during the day and holding him makes him a more secure and happier
1 Bernal, Richard. "Why Some Babies Don't Sleep," New
Society, February 1974, England.
2 Newton, Niles. "Breastfeeding," Psychology Today,
Reprinted from The
Family Bed: An Age Old Concept in Child Rearing with the kind
permission of the author and Avery Publishing Group, a member of Penguin
Putnam Inc. © 1987.
Articles on Sleeping