A new study gives parents another factor to consider when deciding whether to bed-share. The findings, recently published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, show a link between bed-sharing and increased nighttime awakenings as well as shorter sleep durations for children.
"We know from many studies that the more the parents are involved when they fall asleep, just by their presence or by singing or sitting next to them, the more the child is likely to be dependent on the parent for falling asleep," Dr. Mari Hysing, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Uni Research Health who worked on the study, told The Huffington Post. "Bed-sharing is a way that the child gets dependent on the parent for finding their sleep."
The longitudinal study, conducted from 1999 to 2008, was a collaboration between Uni Research, the National Institute of Public Health and the University of California, Berkeley. Using data from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study conducted at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Hysing and her fellow researchers analyzed 55,831 mother reports of child sleep at 6 months and again at 18 months to see if bed-sharing (defined in the study as a child sleeping in the same bed as his or her parent for at least half the night) could predict chronic nocturnal awakenings and shorter sleep duration for infants. The study also looked at breastfeeding as a possible predictor, but found no independent link to sleep patterns.
Among those sampled, 29 percent of mothers reported sharing a bed with their baby -- a higher number than the 18.5 percent of mothers who reported bed-sharing during their baby's 2-to-6 months in a recent survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
These new findings, however, show that older babies who bed-share are more likely to have trouble with sleep later in infancy. At 6 months, 69.5 percent of all infants in the study had nightly awakenings, but by 18 months, this was reduced to 26.6 percent. Bed-sharing at 6 months tripled the risk that an infant would awake in the middle of the night frequently at 18 months, the researchers found. This risk gradually increased the older an infant bed-shared.
"That doesn't mean that we think it's right or wrong to bed share," Hysing noted. "For many people, that's the right way to sleep. This is just one factor among many which you can consider when you decide how you and your family want to arrange parental sleep."
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against bed-sharing and instead encourages room-sharing, where the parents and baby sleep in the same room. This, along with placing the baby to sleep on its back, can help prevent sudden infant death syndrome and accidental suffocation. But Hysing said that many parents have their own reasons for wanting to bed-share, including cultural traditions, personal preferences and practical considerations, like ease of breastfeeding.
"Some parents have strong feelings that this is the way they want to sleep at night," Hysing said. "One of the things that I thought was interesting was that many also believed that this may improve their child's sleep because they feel that when they take their child into their bed, then they fall asleep and everything's OK."
While these results provide some insight into why your child may have trouble sleeping through the night, it's important to note that the study didn't find that bed-sharing caused sleep disturbances -- it just found another link in the complicated sphere of child sleep regulation. Further studies need to be conducted to see if bed-sharing truly does lead to increased nighttime awakenings. Plus, Hysing noted that sleep disturbances are a "normal" part of child development.
At the very least, Hysing is sure that these findings will help inform parents' decision-making when it comes to assessing the benefits and risks of bed-sharing, even if the topic can be a sensitive one.
"This is very personal for people, how they decide to sleep," Hysing said. "People make their own decisions, and we're just trying to take some pieces of the puzzle to understand how their choices make an impact. Then I think it's up to the parents to decide."