When it comes to parenting, there are many decisions to be made about how you raise your child — from what they eat, to what they wear, to how they’re potty-trained, and what time they go to bed. Yet another popular hot topic on parenting discussion forums is co-sleeping, which is when parents sleep in the same bed as their children.
In This Morning host Josie Gibson’s case, the presenter is firmly in support of co-sleeping with her five-year-old son, Reggie-James. Speaking to OK! in an interview, Gibson revealed that she still sleeps in the same bed as Reggie. She joked: "I want him in there forever — he will be until he’s 18!"
To reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) the Lullaby Trust says the safest place for a baby to sleep is in their own clear, flat, separate sleep space, such as a cot or Moses basket.
However, as many parents find themselves co-sleeping whether they mean to or not, the charity has put together some advice for making their parents' bed a safer place for babies.
The National Childbirth Trust recommends that infants sleep in a cot or Moses basket in the same room as their parents in the first six months of their lives, and in 2014, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence said it would extend its recommendation not to co-sleep with babies under one year old.
But for toddlers and older children, co-sleeping is slightly different. While there is no official guidance about co-sleeping with older children, experts such as Sarah Blunden, associate professor and Head of Paediatric Sleep Research at the CQUniversity Australia, have said there is "no problem" with doing so.
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What are the benefits of co-sleeping with children?
Ryan Lowe, child psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP), says that working parents may feel the benefits of co-sleeping with their child the most.
"If you are working long hours every day then that really just leaves the night as a time to be together and it’s a really important and lovely time for parents and young children to be together even if it's while asleep," she says.
"Just as with small babies, toddlers regulate their breathing to match their sleeping parents. They also have lower cortisol and adrenaline levels when in light sleep and awake periods when they are in bed with carers.
"This keeps the child feeling safer with parents as well as lowering the amount that they wake in the night. Consistently raised cortisol and adrenaline levels are associated with a lot of childhood disorders and mental health issues so having this time of safety and recuperation is really important for children," Lowe explains.
What are the drawbacks of co-sleeping with children?
One of the biggest challenges parents might face is whether their child will "sleep happily in the time between their bedtime and the parents’ bedtime".
"This gives parents some space to themselves before co-sleeping, which is really important," Lowe adds.
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"And, if one parent disagrees, then there will be obvious tensions between the parents that will need to be resolved in a way that both parents are happy with."
She continues: "It could be useful to have an open discussion between parents about the needs of everyone in the family and make sure that there is a balance that incorporates everyone's basic needs as well as some of their wants."
Is there a certain age where parents should stop co-sleeping with their children?
There is no hard and fast rule over what age children have to be before they stop co-sleeping with their parents. In some cultures, co-sleeping is a normal practice. Lowe recalls a client from Burma explaining to her that in their native home, the bedroom is "one long room that everyone slept in together".
"Every time a new baby was born, [the client's family] added a new mattress to the room, all the older children moved over one space and the baby moved in next to her," she explains.
Lowe advises that whatever choice parents make should try to meet the needs of all family members. However, this should be discussed if it becomes a situation where the needs of one or more family members gets sacrificed, or if the reason for co-sleeping is unhealthy.
"I think it’s a situation which needs to be carefully and honestly assessed between parents, but possibly enlisting the help of thoughtful friends and family to make sure that all angles have been thought about and it is still the right thing to do at any given age."
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How can parents deal with the transition?
Whether it's the child who doesn’t want to co-sleep anymore, or the parent who makes the decision, this transition period can be difficult.
"Parenting is a long series of managing many difficult feelings of loss, hurt, abandonment, frustration, anger, stress," Lowe explains. "It is important that we do the necessary work on ourselves to manage these feelings in a healthy way — both on our behalf, but also so that we can model this for our children and help them learn how to manage these feelings too."
It is understandable that some parents may feel hurt or loss if their children decide they want to sleep on their own. But Lowe says that, as long as it is "thought through and done at a time that feels healthy, then you can also rejoice in a job well done".
"You have successfully grown a confident, stable, happy, independent child who is making the healthy decision to grow in independence," she reassures parents. "In this current climate, that is an enormous achievement."