Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Lying down with your kids to sleep - am I doing more harm than help?

We all get into that bad habit when the kids are babies where they settle when you carry them, and you get into the bad habit of carrying them to sleep.  My daughter was like that until about 15 months of age when I left her with my parents for a bit and they kept carrying her to sleep.  I was pregnant then and I did NOT want to carry her as she was getting heavy and so when I put her to bed I would lay down next to her and let her snuggle up to me and sleep.  Of course it started off with wailing, crying, climbing all over me, tossing and turning, doing 360s in the bed... but it would work and after a while everyone saw that it worked and stopped carrying her.

But, 2 years down the track, we are still lying down to put her to sleep, and we do that for my son also.  In fact neither of my children will lie down in their rooms to sleep on their own, they wail and cry and get hugely upset until they vomit if one of us doesn't lie down to sleep with them.  We do leave them once they are asleep though!

I have often wondered if I am doing more harm than good.  Everyone else has their kids sleeping in their own rooms, by themselves.  I read lots of books about self settling and being firm, and though I have tried it, I am not successful and end up with tears, stress and husband/wife fights.

All the great parenting books will tell you that encouraging children to sleep in their own rooms allows parents privacy (and sanity).  And I don't disagree!  But what are the effects on children?  Some studies say that there is an increase in cortisol when children sleep on their own (stress hormones).  An article by Jennifer Coburn outlined some interesting research points.
  • Babies who sleep alone are more susceptible to stress disorders (Michael Commons, Harvard psychiatrist).  When babies are left alone to cry by themselves, levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) rise, and constant stimulation by cortisol in infancy causes physical changes in the brain, making them more prone to the effects of stress, illness (including mental illness), and making it harder to recover from that illness.
  • McKenna showed that babies who co-sleep spend time in Phase III sleep (which is where the risk of apnoeas is increased), and they learn healthy breathing patterns from bunkmates (gee you hope that mum doesn't snore or have sleep apnoea!)
So co-sleeping with your infant is supposed to give them less stress and decrease the risk of SIDS.  Ok, so why does everyone say that you should put them in their own room to cry to sleep?

It is likely because of the Western valuing independence.  Children sleeping on their own, feeding themselves, is important in modern and Western values.  Also it is a relatively new thing, in the last 200 years, that sleeping separately for infants has emerged.  New psychologists say that parents need their time to themselves for the sake of their marriage, and that the children will develop abnormal sleeping habits if they sleep with their parents.

All this is very interesting, but it doesn't answer my question: Does sleeping with my kids to put them to sleep cause them to develop a bad habit or behaviour problem?  Does it cause more damage than good?  Because I am putting them to sleep so they know I'm there, but when they wake up they are alone.  However, the kids are free to join our bed or ask us to come to their bed if they wake up at night.  This is detrimental to my husband's sleep, but I don't find it too bad.  Julian can now open his door and when he wakes up too early, I go and lie down with him until he is asleep.  The same with Erika, she often comes to the room asking for me to sleep with her and I do.  Is this detrimental to their health?  It doesn't feel like it, but I can imagine for some families or parents who need more sleep than I do, that it can be detrimental for your sanity, rest, and wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of your marriage.

So I think I am tempted to say that lying down with my kids is NOT bad for them.  It is bad for the parent who is busy or for those who have fragile marriages.  I know that the one thing that I don't like about lying down with the kids is the amount of time it takes up.  In this day and age where we value our own time, using your time like that can be annoying.

I will keep researching, and perhaps I might receive comments as well about people who know of some reasearch that either proves or disproves my ideas.

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