Co-sleeping and the Older Child – A Family Controversy

We’ve had an ongoing controversy in our family the past few years….all about “sleepovers”. In our house “sleepovers” have been defined not as kids in sleeping bags, junk food, and late night silliness, but as an occasional night in bed with either mom or dad – though usually with mom. Our son has always had challenges going to sleep and staying asleep – and really likes company….human company. So an occasional parental “sleepover” is a real treat for him.

So where is the controversy? Although our sleepovers are totally innocent and just give the opportunity for extra time together – including chats, silliness and cuddles – there’s frequently a negative view in the US about kids sleeping with their parents – also known as “co-sleeping”. At a minimum people generally have strong opinions on the subject. My husband frowned on this occasional sleeping arrangement, seeing it as undermining our son’s independence – especially given that he turned 9 this year. And a couple of psychologists I know said that co-sleeping, particularly with one parent, could affect his emotional development.

Why did we do “sleepovers”? My work over the past 5 years was very intense and involved significant overseas travel. So every few weeks I would be gone for a week or two – and when I got back I would be jet-lagged. My son missed me and I missed him – but I didn’t always have the energy or the patience to really be there for him when I got home. So sleepovers were a way for us to get more time together – either before or after a trip. And we had developed some fun rituals for the events – like staging a stuffed animal fight (think snowball fight – but with stuffed animals), drinking hot cocoa before bed, and him telling me original stories as I rubbed his back and head. The arrangement also meant I could just settle in for the night and get a good sleep uninterrupted by his frequent night-time visits. Plus don’t underestimate the power of the mommy guilt when he said he missed me and begged for a sleepover.

What are the potential issues? Most co-sleeping literature focuses on infants – and in this situation the biggest concern is safety; generally regarding suffocation from bedclothes or a parent or sibling rolling onto the baby. In fact, both the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warn against having infants sleep in adult beds. But co-sleeping advocates, such as Dr. William Sears, say these warnings go too far – that with proper consideration for safety, the benefits of the family bed outweigh any risks (click here for a good article about co-sleeping risks and rewards – also see these articles for a perspective from Confessions of a Dr. Mom).

As children age, concern shifts to the development of their independence – will they be too clingy with parents or not be able to eventually transition to sleeping on their own? Psychologists also highlight potential effects on emotional and gender-role development from blurred child-parent boundaries and seeming to come between the mother and father when co-sleeping with just one parent. Finally, issues can be more about the parents – the desire for privacy or couple time – or opposing views on co-sleeping, which can create marital discord.

Different perspectives. Given what I’d been told about the potential negatives, I became worried that we’d done this so long. However, in researching the issue I’ve learned that other cultures see things differently. A friend in England with twin 7-year old girls has regular pint-sized bed-mates and was horrified to hear that I’d been counseled against a bonding opportunity with my son. And I spoke with a colleague from Asia who slept in the parental bed most of the time through age 12. In fact, co-sleeping, even at older ages, is quite common in other parts of the world. This was borne out by a 2006 study in Singapore where over 70% of the children participating slept with parents or another adult. While the co-sleeping children were younger than those who slept alone, the mean age of the co-sleepers was nine years. Even here in the US views are shifting, though many proponents of co-sleeping aren’t comfortable admitting the practice – even to close friends and family. A lot of advice on the topic concludes with the recommendation to do what feels right for your family.

So what did we decide? We didn’t eliminate “sleepovers” entirely – but we have scaled them back considerably, using the occasion of our son’s ninth birthday as the trigger (”you’re getting too old for so many sleepovers”). The practice was becoming too much a norm or expectation for the little guy – and I realized that I was also doing it for my own needs. But I feel reassured from what I’ve read that it hasn’t created an issue for him. He’s extremely independent – able to handle away-camp and visits on his own to grandparents; he only wants hugs and cuddles from mom in private (“no hugs or kisses in front of my friends Mom!!”), and is exhibiting a healthy developing curiosity about girls and relationships. And he’s much better now about sleeping on his own through the night. Who knows, maybe our past co-sleeping helped him better deal with his sleep challenges. Either way, I”m just glad we’re all getting a decent night’s sleep!

What are your family’s sleeping arrangements? Do you admit to co-sleeping or a family bed?

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


9 Responses to “Co-sleeping and the Older Child – A Family Controversy”

  1. TheDaddyYoDude says:

    We are a co-sleeping family. Our son shared the bed until he was almost 3. Our daughter who is 2 now moved out of the bed quicker, though still comes back occasionally when not sleeping well at night.

    I don’t see anything wrong with it. We were also told that it would affect emotional development, but I have not noticed a dependence or preference to either one of myself or my wife by the kids.

  2. I’m okay with occasional family “camp outs” but I’m totally against co-sleeping. I can’t get into a debate about it because I’m SUPER lazy but I think there are too many attachment issues involved.

  3. wendy says:

    we practice co-sleeping. our nearly 5-year old and 19 months old sons sleep with us. i don’t see anything wrong with them being attached to us at their ages. they have a lifetime ahead of them to be as independent as they can.

    hubby and i have not become platonic because of this sleeping arrangement:-).

  4. Luke says:

    My little sister (8 ) sometimes fall asleep with me, and then i need to go and sleep on the couch since there is no space 🙂 No one have any problem.

  5. Karen says:

    I’d like to make a comment about the co-sleeping. I always lean towards natural ways of doing things, but our experience with co-sleeping was not a good one. My step son started sleeping in our bed around the age of 2, and we could not get him out until he was 9. We tried everything (bribing, demanding, coaxing, rewarding, etc). We eventually had to move his twin bed into our bedroom and put it right beside ours because he was just too big to fit in the bed with us. The only thing that got him out of our bed was (1) we moved so there was a change of scenery (2) we bought him a brand new bunk bed (3) we let him leave any lights on in his room that he wanted (4) we sat in a chair outside the room, but right in the doorway where he could see us. It took almost a year of doing this us to be able to walk away from that chair while he was still awake. Even now, at 13, he still asks if he can sleep in our bed but we just tell him he is too big. (he’s bigger than me, and i’m 5’4″, 170 lbs). I really wish we’d never started him sleeping in our bed, because he seems to have an unnatural fear of sleeping alone. While he does sleep in his own bed, it’s like pulling teeth to get him to go to bed.

    • Thanks for your comments. They are a cautionary tale. Once you’re on a path with a chld it can be really difficult to get off. You seem to have take some good creative approaches though – and are firm and consistent at the same time that you’re trying to support him through the change. I wish it was easier to know in advance when we’re going down a wrong path!

  6. Mike_R (LCSW) says:

    He clearly knows right from wrong by saying no hugs in front of friends. Parents today are immature and ill equipped to raise children. Kids are not stuffed animals, friends, or mini boyfriends to massage, or laugh with at bed time. A child over five years old is already sexually curious. I live with a woman who sleeps with her eight year old. She’s using this poor kid to conquer her loneliness and guilt. He already shows signs of mental instability. He needs a parent not an old girlfriend. I’m moving out and just might call protect services. She showers with the poor kid too. Norman Bates, anyone?

    • Stefanie Zucker Stefanie Zucker says:

      If you have a concern for the well being of a child based on something you observe, either directly, or even through observations of their behavior, please don’t ignore it. If it’s just a suspicion, talk to the child – see if you can get them to open up to you ( – or talk to an expert and get a professional opinion. From what you’ve described of your girlfriend’s situation, it sounds like there’s at least something worth exploring further.

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