A new study in the journal Infant and Child Development found that co-sleeping moms experienced at least 16% more criticism than other moms. Additionally, moms who were persistently criticized for co-sleeping were 76% more depressed and anxious about both their parenting and their baby’s wellbeing than other parents.
According lead researcher, Douglas Teti of Penn State University, “We definitely saw that the persistent co-sleepers—the moms that were still co-sleeping after six months—were the ones who seemed to get the most criticism,” Teti says. “Additionally, they also reported greater levels of worry about their baby’s sleep, which makes sense when you’re getting criticized about something that people are saying you shouldn’t be doing, that raises self-doubt. That’s not good for anyone.”
Although a majority of parents (73%) practice co-sleeping in the first month of baby’s life, criticism by friends and family often results in a precipitous drop in co-sleeping by the baby’s 6th month.
“We found that about 73 percent of families co-slept at the one-month point. That dropped to about 50 percent by three months, and by six months, it was down to about 25 percent,” Teti says. “Most babies that were in co-sleeping arrangements in the beginning were moved out into solitary sleep by six months.”
The study found that it was not co-sleeping that was responsible for mother’s depression, but the increased level of criticism they received from family and friends that made them doubt their own observations about the quality of their baby’s sleep, and their own parenting skills. According to Teti, “In other parts of the world, co-sleeping is considered normal, while here in the US, it tends to be frowned upon”
C0-Sleeping Moms Sleep More
Although some critics suggest that it is co-sleeping, itself, that causes parents, and mothers in particular, to sleep less (and therefore, be more depressed/anxious), previous research has found that mothers who exclusively breastfeed and co-sleep actually sleep significantly more than mothers who bottle feed, sleep separately from their babies, or some combination of these two latter conditions. This most recent study lends support to the idea that for many parents, perceived problems with co-sleeping may be due less to disruptions in the mother’s and baby’s actual sleep patterns than to fears–brought on by the lack of support and/or persistent criticism–that there could potentially be problems with co-sleeping.
As Teti explained. “Co-sleeping, as long as it’s done safely, is fine as long as both parents are on board with it.”
The fact is, research consistently shows that, assuming proper support and the adoption of safe co-sleeping practices, there are numerous physiological, relational, and emotional benefits to both mother and baby. No parent who wishes to practice co-sleeping should ever be made to feel that they are doing something wrong. If you are co-sleeping, or would like to, here are some things to keep in mind.
Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page regarding co-sleeping. Discuss concerns openly and respectfully. Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood offers many suggestions for how to successfully balance mom care, baby care, and marriage care. You don’t have to choose between being attentive co-sleeping parents and having a great marriage. Get the support you need to learn how to achieve a healthy balance that lets you celebrate the best of both worlds.
Listen to your baby. You are the expert, not your friends and family. Is your baby happy? Is he or she growing? Then everything is fine. Most babies do not sleep for long stretches. In fact, there is strong evidence that suggests that monophasic sleep (one 8-10 hour period of sleep) is less healthy and natural for humans than biphasic or polyphasic (2 or more shorter sleep periods) sleep patterns. We can learn to sleep monophasically, and most people eventually learn to, but it isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally, and depending on multiple factors that are unique to each child, some babies come into it later than others. If your baby seems happy and healthy, it really doesn’t matter what your mother in law or your moms’ group thinks. Trust your baby and sleep when they do.
Circle the Wagons
Your decisions regarding nighttime parenting are personal and private. How you and your baby sleep is no one else’s business but your own. Because, as this study demonstrates, there is strong social pressure against co-sleeping in the West, resist the temptation to openly discuss co-sleeping with people who you aren’t sure will be supportive. Other parents are welcome to do things differently. Don’t argue with them. Just smile, nod, and change the subject. As long as your baby is healthy and happy, you’re doing fine. If you do have concerns, by all means seek help from professionals who are both supportive of your choices and open to working with you to finding the best arrangement for you and your baby.
Check Your Scruples
Every new parent struggles with a little nervousness and self-doubt, but some parents are particularly prone to self-criticism, anxiety, and scruples (the crushing sense that there is exactly one, right, way to do everything—and you can never get it right). The more anxious you are, the more difficult co-sleeping will be for you–partly because you will be too busy looking for problems to enjoy it, and partly because babies are barometers, they absorb and reflect their parents’ emotions. If you still want to attempt it, make sure that your spouse is your co-sleeping champion, and carefully follow the above advice about trusting your baby and circling your wagons. Most importantly, if you feel that your anxiety is robbing you of your ability to feel confident as a mom or enjoy your baby, seek professional help to learn how to cope more effectively with the stress of being a new parent.
To learn more about how you can find the balance that helps you celebrate your role as a mom, check out Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood or visit CatholicCounselors.com to learn more about the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic tele-counseling services. With the right information and good support, you can make sure that you, your baby, and your marriage are getting everything they need to thrive.