Co-Sleeping With a Toddler May Affect Mom's Health

cosleeping toddler
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There are many different reasons why a family might choose to co-sleep with their children. Some families believe co-sleeping is a more healthy and natural approach to sleep. Others might find co-sleeping makes the burden of nighttime feedings a little easier, and still others might just happen to fall into accidental co-sleeping as it becomes easier to just accept a nighttime visit from their little one instead of fighting him or her.

Regardless of the reasons for co-sleeping, the effects of co-sleeping on a family can be different. A family might find co-sleeping to be a positive experience or be frustrated with sharing the family bed. Many studies that have been done have focused on the safety of co-sleeping for the child, but there isn't a lot of research on how co-sleeping affects parents. One study, however, suggests that co-sleeping with a toddler may negatively affect a mother's mental health specifically.

What Is Co-Sleeping?

Co-sleeping is when a parent or caregiver shares a sleeping surface for part or all of the night. A family might sleep in the same bed, or one parent might sleep with the child while another partner takes another room or sleeping surface. It might take place over the duration of an entire night or it might happen for part of the night when a toddler sneaks into mom's bed and spends the rest of the night there. There are many different ways to co-sleep, but essentially, it boils down to a parent and a child occupying a sleeping area together for all or part of a night.

Many families who co-sleep start the co-sleeping practice during a child's infant years, so there has been a lot of focus on the safety of co-sleeping during a baby's infancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently recommends against co-sleeping of any kind during a child's first year of life. The AAP, however, doesn't have any specific sleeping guidelines for toddlers after the first year of life, primarily because the risk of SIDS typically decreases after 12 months of age.

How Does Co-Sleeping Affect Mothers?

A 2017 study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics is one of the first of its kind to look specifically at the effects that co-sleeping can have on a mother's mental health. The study explained that when children have sleep problems, it's common for parents to get insufficient sleep and even more common for mothers to be the most severely affected. Previous research had also linked poor sleep in children to negative outcomes in the mother's mental health. So researchers wanted to examine specifically what happens when mothers co-sleep with their toddlers, and if co-sleeping could make those mental health problems worse.

The study looked at low-income mothers of toddlers, who ranged in age from 12 to 32 months, who were from WIC offices and pediatric clinics. The mothers were asked to complete questionnaires on their toddlers' sleep habits, their own sleep, and mental health symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and stress.

And the results? Perhaps unsurprisingly, when mothers reported their toddlers as having sleep problems, they also reported an interruption in their own sleep. And when mothers co-slept with their toddlers, they reported even more sleep disruptions. On average, mothers with perceived toddler sleep problems had an average decrease of 51 minutes of sleep when co-sleeping with their toddlers. They reported things like having their sleep interrupted by the child moving in the bed or during sleep and waking them up. The mothers who co-slept also reported having more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Mothers who didn't co-sleep with their toddlers didn't report as many negative mental health symptoms.

Overall, the study showed how mothers who saw their toddlers as having sleep problems or issues sleeping through the night were more likely to co-sleep with their toddlers in an attempt to get their toddlers to sleep better. Of course, there's no way to prove that co-sleeping really does help toddlers with perceived sleep problems sleep better. So it is possible that parents who aren't necessarily co-sleeping by choice are having their sleep interrupted—and their mental health affected—without any positive impact on their child's sleep.

Why Do Families Co-Sleep?

So if co-sleeping is messing up mothers' sleep and impacting their mental health, why do they do it? Well, as the study pointed out, there are many different reasons—not all obvious at first glance—that might lead to a decision to co-sleep.

Everything from living situations, a lack of sleeping spaces, and cultural beliefs and traditions can all contribute to co-sleeping. Some families might work night shifts, for example, and co-sleep to spend more time together. And still other families, like many in the study, may not actually want to co-sleep but aren't sure how to help their toddler sleep more independently.

How to Encourage Your Toddler to Sleep Independently

If you are a family who is co-sleeping with a toddler and you hope to encourage your toddler to sleep more independently, you can rest assured that research is on your side. Co-sleeping won't necessarily help your toddler sleep better and in fact, could be damaging to your health and that of your child. But how exactly do you get a toddler to sleep on his or her own? There are some strategies you can try:

  • Work with your pediatrician to develop a sleep plan. There's no shame in asking for help from a professional. Sleep is important for the entire family and in fact, it might be one of the most important factors for overall health, so it just makes sense to include your child's pediatrician in any struggles you may be facing with sleep so you can work on a plan for the future together.
  • Consider a sleep coach. If you have the financial means, a sleep coach might be the right choice for your family. Families who have utilized a sleep coach have seen results in as little as one to two sessions, so it may not be as expensive as you first think.
  • Bring in a third party. Breaking a co-sleeping habit can be difficult. Parents are exhausted, kids are exhausted, everyone is cranky and it can be incredibly hard to make the necessary changes to help implement a new habit. That's where a change of scenery—or people—might come in handy. You might consider enlisting the help of a third party, like a grandparent, family member, or friend who can help for a few nights as everyone settles into a new routine. The third party member might help get the toddler settled into bed so he or she is less apt to ask to go in mom's bed and/or be available through the night as your little one gets comfortable in his/her new sleeping environment.

    A Word From Verywell

    Co-sleeping during infancy is not recommended as part of current safe sleep practices by the American Academy of Pediatrics, but there is not a lot of research on co-sleeping during the toddler years. One study, however, suggests that co-sleeping with a toddler on a regular basis can negatively affect a mother's mental health and cause her to get less sleep.

    Additionally, interrupted sleep patterns are associated with negative health outcomes in children, both as toddlers and as they grow. The bottom line is that a good night of sleep is important to everyone, and it impacts both your physical and mental health. If co-sleeping is not working for your family, it might be helpful to speak to your child's pediatrician to create a plan of action to encourage your little one to sleep more independently.

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    Article Sources
    • Covington, L B., Armstrong, B, Black, M.M (2017, December 1). Perceived toddler sleep problems, co-sleeping, and maternal sleep and mental health. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000535
    • TASK FORCE ON SUDDEN INFANT DEATH SYNDROME. (2016, Oct). SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Updated 2016 Recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment.. Pediatrics, e20162938; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-2938