Globe and Mail

On bunking with babes


The family bed, or 'co-sleeping' as it's referred to by the experts, is a middle-class epidemic. Everything from working-parent's guilt to old-fashioned affection-craving is being blamed, as legions of youngsters crawl out from under their mobiles and Star Wars sheets and into the arms of their parents. Every single night.

Thursday, February 18, 1999
The Globe and Mail

At a cocktail party, a gaggle of working couples with small children found out they all had a naughty little bedroom secret: At night, after lights were out, each couple snuggled up with their kids.

Trent University professor Stephen Brown, the host of the party, recounted his average nightly routine:

Around 8:30 he puts his five-year-old daughter, Madeleine, to bed. His wife, Kathryn, settles down with their eldest daughter, Edith, 8, in the next room. After much sheet-tucking and story-reading, Stephen and Kathryn almost always doze off, until, sometime before midnight, they drag themselves back to the master bedroom. Later, in the wee hours, one or both of their kids will slip between the sheets to sleep beside their parents until morning.

"For years it was the 'T' formation every night, one child in the middle, the other along the foot of the bed," Brown said. "One wonders why we keep up the charade of putting them into their own beds, but we do."

Many parents are uncomfortable admitting it, but more and more families with young children are spending the night clumped together on the same (hopefully king-size) mattress. Reasons behind the trend vary from working-parent's guilt, to exhaustion, to parental anxiety, to old-fashioned affection-craving. Whatever the impulse, legions of youngsters head out every night from under their Star Wars or Mulan print sheets and into the arms of their parents.

Call it the family bed movement. "It's increasing," says Diane Marshall, family therapist and clinical director of Toronto's Institute of Family Living. Marshall said that greater numbers of parents are giving in to their children's or their own wish for communal sleeping arrangements. Experts like author Deborah Jackson (Three in a Bed) plead for a return to the patterns of primitive societies. Proponents say snoring en masse strengthens familial bonds and improves infant health. Everything from a lower incidence of crib death to the greater immunological benefits of breast-feeding have been claimed by those who champion co-sleeping (although the evidence is inconclusive).

Not everyone is ready to jump onto the one-big-bed bandwagon, however. Some experts claim the family bed blurs crucial emotional "boundaries" between parents and their children. Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton encourages parents to push baby back to bed before it's too late.

Yet parents maintain that most children naturally draw the line. Brown, for instance, says that his eldest daughter, who suffers from severe bouts of insomnia, slept with him and his wife "until she decided she was ready to leave, which was somewhere around age seven."

The solution makes sense for parents who are tired of what fiction writer and memoirist Charles Foran calls the "tough love" method of persuading small children back into their own beds. This is a reference to pediatric gurus like Benjamin Spock (Baby and Child Care) and Richard Ferber (Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems), who advocated the "cry-it-out" approach to settling baby. Foran recalls the years when his youngest daughter, Claire, bunked with him and his wife, Mary. "We let her sleep with us, but there was no ideology to it," he insisted. "It just made sense. We weren't doing some kind of bed-as-womb thing."

Yet most young children would rather eat their own heads than sleep alone. Fear of the dark, monsters under the bed and sheer restlessness drive children of all ages to tap on their parents' door -- or heads -- in the middle of the night. When it happens, a fuzzy-brained mom or dad must face the dilemma of whether or not to invite junior in for the night or carry the kid back to bed.

Those who allow the nightly reconnaissance missions usually kept them secret from outsiders who see this practice as feeble parenting -- an inability to set appropriate limits or teach children to be independent. But Holly Bennett, author of the Steps and Stages column for Today's Parent magazine, recommends parents get over it: "For parents who are working, it's a way to get extra closeness at night. A lot of moms have said to me that they like it."

Dads, too: Jamie Fraser of Halifax said that if it were up to him, his two boys (ages three and one) would be allowed to sleep with their parents more often. His wife, however, finds that it disturbs her rest. As a compromise, they encourage the boys to sleep in their own rooms unless they're sick or scared. "On average we like them to sleep in their own beds, but they usually come in with us once or twice a week," he said.

Cathy Pyper, a full-time Carlisle, Ont., mother of three young children, said, "I won't stay up fighting with them all night when I need to be functional the next day," she said. "Besides, they're at this age for such a short time, it's not like they'll be sleeping in your bed until they're 20."

Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? A nightly return to the garden of Eden. But it's not that simple. The loss of adult intimacy in the marital bed can lead to certain, er, difficulties.

"Anybody who tells you they have no disagreements on the subject is lying," said Brown. However, he went on to point out that ". . . to assume that people are making love at bedtime is just as fallacious as assuming that children are sleeping alone. After all, are you really going to have sex if you're listening to your kid screaming in the next room?"

Foran has his own battle scars: "Kids aren't so great to sleep with, they flop around a lot, they grunt, they moan, they hit.

"Claire once plowed me in the nose -- and it bled."

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