One of the first people Sara Jones Rust remembers after giving birth to her son, Beckett, is the nurse who saw her sleeping soundly with the baby. "Do not let him sleep in your bed!" the nurse said. And, those eight words made a big impression.
Two months later, Rust stuffed her family -- baby Beckett, husband, Hillary, 32, son, brother and sister-in-law, an infant niece, plus everyone's luggage -- into a mini-van to drive over 400 miles from Kentucky to Georgia for Thanksgiving at the in-laws'. Despite being cramped, Rust packed Beckett's bassinet. But, it was a cover.
Sara and Hillary Rust are closeted co-sleepers. And they are not alone.
While a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in 2003 suggested that co-sleeping more than doubled in frequency between 1993 and 2000, these statistics still might be an under-representation. In 2007, the New York Times reported on a British study that suggests many parents keep bed-sharing a secret. Scientists used infrared cameras to observe parents' bedrooms and, out of the families who let their children in at night, only half the couples admitted to it.
There are both intentional (family bed is best) and circumstantial (crying, nightmares, constant nursing needs) bed-sharers. Most of the parents we talked to, who were hiding it, said they started bed-sharing thinking it was temporary -- just until the child stopped teething or gained more weight -- but ended up deciding to co-sleep indefinitely. Some say they keep doing it out of convenience. Many find it's the only way to get more sleep, and others discover it's real and special family bonding time.
For Rust, it was a mix of the three.
"I had pretty much decided he would sleep in his crib," Rust told The Huffington Post. But Beckett woke up every two hours wailing until one day when he fell asleep while nursing -- and Rust did too.
"It was the longest stretch he had napped ever," Rust said. "So we tried it again at night and it worked."
Now, Beckett sleeps between his mother and the bed's guardrail -- a must-have for any co-sleeping family -- and what started as a crutch now provides emotional fulfillment.
"I love that the first thing I see in the morning is my son's big, toothless grin," Rust said.
Even though bed sharing is common in other cultures, including Asia, Africa, Europe and Central and South America, it is highly controversial in the United States. The American Academy of Pediatrics says co-sleeping with babies increases the chances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which is the leading cause of death for children aged one month to one year old. A Facebook group called Parents Against Co-Sleeping has over 1150 "likes," and one member posted: "TO ALL PARENTS WHO CHOSE TO BED-SHARE AFTER READING (OR NOT READING THE INFORMATION ON THIS PAGE) ... I am going to be very brief in saying that I pray for the survival of your child-to-be."
But, other authorities, including Dr. James J. McKenna, who heads the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, said those studies were inconclusive and most cases of infant death while bed sharing involved exigent circumstances, such as intoxicated or overly obese parents.
Dr. William Sears is perhaps the most well known advocate for co-sleeping. In 1993, he wrote a chapter promoting it in The Baby Book in 1993, and that instigated vehement debate.
"I'm to blame for starting this stuff in the first place," he told HuffPost. Now 81, the California pediatrician co-slept with five of his eight children, rationalizing that he and his wife were too young to know better for their first three children.
"Put yourself behind the eyes of your baby," Sears said. "Ask, 'If I were baby Johnny or baby Suzy, where would I rather sleep?' In a dark lonely room behind bars, or nestled next to my favorite person in the world, inches away from my favorite cuisine?"
But Sears has experienced the backlash that keeps many so-sleepers closeted. The harshest reaction came after he appeared on "20/20" in the early 1990s and discussed bed sharing with his eighth child, who was adopted.
"We got a knock on the door and two uniformed men from child protective services said they were there to investigate me based on possible sexual abuse," Sears said. "They said that I had admitted on national television that my baby slept with me."
Toddlers And Beyond
For toddlers, there are different concerns. Everything from co-sleeping impeding on parents' intimacy to how sharing a bed impacts a child's emotional development is held up for debate.
"Kids need to learn to fall asleep on their own and go back to bed after they wake up at night," Dr. John Carosso, a children's therapist at the Community Psychiatric Center in New York who does not endorse co-sleeping, told HuffPost. "Beyond that, if a parent is purposely sleeping with the kid, you have to ask what's going on."
The good news for co-sleepers at the moment comes in the form of a 2011 study that implies co-sleeping does not negatively impact toddlers.
Titled "Mother-Child Bed-sharing in Toddlerhood and Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes," the study was published in the August issue of Pediatrics.
Researchers looked at a sample of 944 families -- primarily Hispanics and African Americans from a lower socio-economic bracket, who have been shown to be the most likely demographics to report co-sleeping in the United States -- and found that 1, 2 and 3-year-old children who shared beds with their parents did not experience negative cognitive or behavioral outcomes at the age of five. The study didn't explore co-sleeping with infants.
"Basically, parents can sleep better at night knowing that they are not going to skew their children," R. Gabriela Barajas, a doctoral student at the Teachers College of Columbia University, told HuffPost.
Cindy Cox, 32, confessed on her blog that she and her husband David, 45, bed-share.
"I'm sleeping with another man," she wrote. "Two men actually. Two men and a dog. But the dog sleeps on the floor."
Before that, they kept their sleep status private, almost convincing themselves that it would be temporary -- maybe until he got a little bigger and didn't need to nurse as much.
"Sometimes we put Gabriel in his crib and take pictures of him in it saying, 'Here he is waking up in the morning,'" Cox told HuffPost, "even though he spends the night in our bed."
Cox even kept her co-sleeping from Gabriel's pediatrician for a year.
"And the doctor said, 'You know I did it too with my own kids.' She told us that after she spent a year telling us to never sleep with Gabriel!" Cox said.
Cox thinks co-sleeping has added advantages for working moms who spend the day away from their children.
"If I didn't sleep with [my son], I might just see him for one or two hours in a day," she said. "My concern is will this last forever. Am I never going to have my own bed again?"
Laurie Gray, a 47-year-old young adult author and lawyer from Indiana, still sleeps with her 9-year-old daughter, Victoria. They transitioned from all sharing the family bed to Gray sleeping in her child's room. When Gray has work to do late at night, her husband Frank, 70, takes her place.
Gray told HuffPost that although Victoria is capable of sleeping in her own room and has never had a problem going to sleepovers, the family does not have a plan to stop bed sharing.
"I think it will happen naturally," Gray said. "She's becoming more independent and as she gets older she's going to want her own space. But as long as she needs to be close and comforted, it's our job not only to provide our children with safety, but to make them feel safe."
While Dr. Sears told HuffPost that bed sharing with a nine year old is an extreme. He explained, "In this day and age, I'm more worried about children's lack of intimacy rather than over-attachment."
When Does It End?
Eric Morgan, a 30 year-old father of three children (ages 1, 2 and 6), however, thinks Cox has a legitimate fear of never getting her bed back.
"My wife and I tried it for convenience's sake," Morgan told HuffPost, remembering how his kids would cry throughout the night when they were alone. "But our kids never got out of our bed."
Morgan, a web designer from Utah, and his wife, Mindy, 31, have been edged to opposite sides of their king size bed by their splayed out, sleeping children for the past six years, and they feel embarrassed telling friends and family what goes on at night.
"I hate it," he told HuffPost. "And so does my wife. It's awkward that we sleep with our kids rather than each other. They kick, and when my two year old is tired he grabs my ear, and he's made it bleed."
Morgan and his wife have been trying to wean their children from the bed every two months, but their efforts are met with screaming fits and ultimately they cave.
Morgan is giving it another go this week.
"This time we are really going to do it," he said. "We will just put them in their rooms, lock the doors and hopefully it will last."
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